"To be, or not to be?" was Hamlet's perplexing question.
The Spanish student must grapple with a similar one: "Which 'to be' to use?"
are several instances in Spanish where one English word (or tense) can be translated
two different ways in Spanish (Por and Para, The Imperfect Tense and the Preterite Tense, Ser and Estar) and the decision you make can affect the meaning
of the sentence. Translating from Spanish to English is not a problem because
both ser and estar become a form of "to
be." Translating from English to Spanish, on the other hand, is much more difficult
because a decision needs to be made on which of the two verbs to use.
we get too much further, let's take a quick look at the (present tense) conjugations
of both verbs:
Ser is completely irregular, and estar has
an irregular yo form along with some irregular accented endings.
Ser and Estar: The Basics
So how do we decide
which verb to use? Here's when we use estar:
When to Use Estar
"To say how you feel and where you are, you should use the
easy way to think about the verb estar is that it is used to describe temporary
conditions and locations. Conditions can be mental, emotional, or physical states
of people, animals, and objects. Locations are quite simply where something or
Pepe y Pablo están
en mi dormitorio.
Emilia está enferma.
Note: Because estar is associated with location, words like "here" or "there" are optional: Jaime no está. (Jaime isn't here.)
and Pablo are in my room." This sentence describes someone's location, so
están (not son) is used. "Emilia is sick."
This sentence is talking about Emilia's physical condition so está (not es) is used.
In both of these situations the condition
mentioned is temporary. Presumably Pepe and Pablo won't always be in my room;
hopefully Emilia won't always be sick.
On the other hand ...
When to Use Ser
estar deals with temporary conditions, that leaves ser
as the verb to use for more permanent situations. Generally speaking, ser is used when dealing with more "inherent" characteristics. That's a fancy
way of saying things which are not likely to change.
coche es amarillo.
Sus hermanos son
"My car is yellow." This is not likely to change.
The car probably has been yellow for some time and will continue to be yellow
into the future. We wouldn't expect it to suddenly be another color tomorrow.
"Her brothers are very thin." Again, this is a state that we wouldn't
expect to change quickly. When we think of these brothers, we think of them as
being thin and don't expect them to rapidly put on weight.
Notice that in
these examples it's not impossible that the characteristics would change
(cars are repainted all the time, and thin people sometimes get bigger). It's
just unlikely to expect that they would soon.
The Exception: Events
It wouldn't be a rule if it didn't have an exception, right? To talk about where and when events will take place, we use ser rather than estar—even though we're dealing with a location.
fiesta es en la casa de Alejandro.
útbol son en el estadio.
"The party is
at Alejandro's house." "The soccer games are at the stadium." Both
of these situations might feel like we should be using a form of estar
since we're dealing with where these things are happening, but we use ser with events. Think of ser as meaning "to
take place" in these situations.
Ser and Estar: Differences in Meaning
Your choice of using either estar or ser can also affect the rest of the sentence. Certain adjectives will convey different meanings
based on which verb they're paired with:
manzana es verde.
La manzana está
The first sentence uses ser, so we're talking about an
inherent characteristic of the apple. It should be translated, "The apple
is green," meaning simply that the color of the apple is green. The second
sentence uses estar, so we're dealing with the apple's current condition. This
sentence should be translated something along the lines of, "The apple is
not ripe," meaning that it still needs to ripen up and turn red. Another
¿Cómo estás tú?
of these sentences could be translated exactly the same way in English, "How
are you?" However, since the first sentence uses a form or ser, the implied question is not "How are you right now?" but "How are
you usually?" or better yet, "What are you like?" The second question
is the more familiar "How are you?" or "How are you doing?"
I am tired. (now)
I am sick. (now)
I am happy. (now)
She's being quiet.
I am a tired person.
a sickly person.
I am a happy person.
She's a good person.
He's evil. (a bad person)
You can use the differences between ser and estar to comment on changes from what you consider normal.
Los coches son muy caros.
Cars are very expensive. (They are usually expensive.)
Los coches están muy caros.
Cars are very expensive. (They are especially expensive right now.)
Marisól es delgada.
Marisól is thin. (She is normally a thin person.)
Marisól está delgada.
Marisól is thin. (She has lost weight recently.)
Ser and Estar: Other Uses
Use estar in present progressive and imperfect progressive conjugations:
¡Yo te estoy hablando!
I am calling you!
Ella estaba llamándome.
She was calling me.
Time, Days, and Dates
Use ser when talking about the time, days, and dates:
¿Qué hora es? Son las diez.
What time is it? It's ten o'clock.
Hoy es sábado. Es el 29 de septiembre.
Today is Saturday. It's the 29th of September.
Use ser when talking about possession:
El sombrero es del Sr. Fajardo.
The hat is Mr. Fajardo's.
El coche es de Pancho.
It's Pancho's car.
Use ser when talking about the material something is made of:
Mis anillos son de oro.
My rings are gold.
Estas cajas son de cartón.
These boxes are made of cardboard.
Nationality and Origin
Use ser when talking about nationality or place of origin:
Ronaldo es nicaragüense y su amigo es argentino.
Ronaldo is Nicaraguan and his friend is Argentine.
es de Miami.
Marta is from Miami.
¿Estas camisas son de Guatemala?
Are these shirts from Guatemala?
Occupation, Religion, and Political Affiliation
Use ser when talking about occupation and religious or political affiliation:
abogado. ¿Qué eres tú, Manuela?
I'm a lawyer. What are you, Manuela?
Su familia es católica pero ella es protestante.
Her family is catholic but she is protestant.
Él es republicano y su esposa es demócrata.
He is a republican and his wife is a democrat.
Use ser in passive voice constructions:
Tres casas son construidas cada semana.
Three houses are constructed each week.
La puerta fue cerrada por el viento.
The door was closed by the wind.
Use ser in impersonal expressions:
Es importante tomar buenos apuntes.
It is important to take good notes.
Es difícil estudiar con tanto ruido.
It is difficult to study with so much noise.
All of the present tense ser and estar rules apply to other tenses as well:
Yo estaba muy enfermo.
I was very sick.
boda será en la catedral.
The wedding will be at the cathedral.
¿Qué hora era?
What time was it?