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What is the difference between ser and estar?

Do you know the difference between ser and estar in Spanish? Today we will learn it together!

It’s one of the main aspects of the Spanish language. There are two verbs for ‘to be’!

A widespread general rule is that we use ser for permanent characteristics, while estar is for temporary conditions.

However, many teachers don’t like this rule.

Why? Because, although more or less effective, this rule is just partly true and we will see why.

Find out the real difference between ser and estar in Spanish, as well as a potential mistake you want to avoid!

The difference between ser and estar

The general rule that makes a distinction between permanent and temporary characteristics works only with adjectives.

If you use them with adjectives, you will guess right in 85% of the cases.

Not that bad, huh?

But it’s important to know that it doesn’t always work with every adjective! More about this soon.

For other cases, ser and estar in Spanish have specific contexts of use. That is, they aren’t interchangeable and, depending on the context, the meaning can vary from the original idea.

So first you should learn these specific uses, and just then the real difference between both verbs.

Let’s learn when to use ser in Spanish.

When to use ser in Spanish

¿Qué es?: using ser to define / classify

We use ser with nouns or adjectives that express profession, nationality, religion or a political ideology.

Marcos es profesor.

Helen es estadounidense.

Ariel es protestante.

Noelia es socialdemócrata.

In these examples, the subject belongs to a certain group or category and you don’t need to use an article. Ser answers the question ‘what?’.

Marcos es profesor. (= What does he do? He belongs to the group ‘professors’)

Helen es estadounidense. (= What is her nationality? She belongs to the group ‘Americans’)

Ser is also used to define concepts, like a dictionary.

-¿Qué es el mate?
-Es la bebida nacional de Argentina.

¿Quién es?: using ser to identify

We use ser to identify who a person is.

-¿Quién es ella?
-Es mi esposa.

Also, with the same type of nouns mentioned above, if you choose to use either a definite (el, la, los, las) or indefinite article (un, una, unos, unas), the meaning is slightly different. SER answers the question ‘who?’.

Marcos es el profesor. (= Who is he? A specific professor: the one we had talked about, etc.)

Marcos es un profesor. (= Who is he? A professor, another one. We mention him for the first time)

When talking about professions, if you want to say that a person is doing a job temporarily, you can use estar de:

-¿Qué está haciendo ahora?
-Está de guardia de seguridad.

Origin / material / posession

Along with the preposition de, ser can express origin, material and posession.

Annalise es de Nueva Zelanda.

La silla es de metal.

Los libros son de Santiago. (= The books are Santiago’s)

Receiver / functionality

Along with the preposition para, ser express who the receiver of an object or action is, as well as the functionality of an object.

Esta guitarra es para ti.

-¿Para qué es este botón?
-Es para encender la computadora.

Price

Either to ask for the price of something or to talk about how much something costs.

-¿Cuánto es? (= How much is it?)
-Son $30.

Location of an event

In this case, ser means ‘to take place’ or ‘to happen’.

La ceremonia es en la casa de Anabela.

-¿Dónde fue el accidente?
-Fue en la esquina de mi casa.

Sometimes, ser can express the location of a subject that has the quality of stillness. Although it’s more usual to use estar in this case, ser indicates a fixed location that can’t change.

El hospital es en el centro.

La estación de subte es a dos cuadras. (= two blocks away)

This is a common use in Argentina and Uruguay.

Time

Ser can indicate time and date, and be used with time adverbs: tarde, temprano, ahora, pronto, etc.

-¿Qué hora es?
-Son las 8:15.

Hoy es miércoles.

Es muy temprano.

La clase es a las seis.

-¿Cuándo fueron las elecciones?
-Fueron en 2015.

Passive voice

We use ser. The direct object becomes the subject of the sentence in passive voice.

Los bomberos encontraron al gato –> El gato fue encontrado por los bomberos (passive voice)

Ser + modal words (es… que)

A speaker can use the structure es + adjective / noun + que to express an opinion, degrees of certainty, obligation, etc.

Es increíble que la película dure cuatro horas.

Es necesario que termines el proyecto.

Es una lástima que hayan terminado. (= it’s a shame they broke up)

Now let’s see when to use estar.

Camila es estudiante. Está estudiando la diferencia entre ser y estar. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

When to use estar in Spanish

¿Cómo estás?

This is probably the first thing you learned about this verb, estar used for a greeting.

We use ¿cómo estás? to ask a person how they are. The answer usually is an adverb like bien (good) or mal (bad), and sometimes an adjective too.

-¿Cómo estás?
-¡Estoy muy bien! ¿Y tú?

Location of an object

We use estar to express the location of something. It can be a person, an animal or an object, but never an event (remember, ser is the correct one there).

Alicia está en la escuela.

El gato está sobre el sillón.

El banco está en la Avenida Córdoba.

Estar + past participle

Past participles are words formed from a verb, ending in -ado or -ido (-cho, -to, and -so are also endings for some irregular verbs).

Some regular past participles are hablado (hablar), comido (comer) and vivido (vivir).

And this is the big difference between ser and estar in Spanish: estar + past participle expresses what the state of an object is, as a result of a previous action or process.

La puerta se abrió –> La puerta está abierta.

El televisor se rompió –> El televisor está roto.

Mi papá se durmió –> Mi papá está dormido.

El chef preparó la comida –> La comida está preparada.

As you can see, participles can work as adjectives. There are adjectives that, although not exactly participles, imply that concept of transformation and result.

La gente abandonó la ciudad –> La ciudad está vacía.

Comí demasiado –> Estoy lleno. (= I’m full)

This is the reason why in Spanish we don’t say ‘es muerto’, a common mistake in students that were taught that ser describes a permanent condition.

El personaje murió –> El presidente está muerto.

We will come back to this concept of transformation and result in a few moments, when we compare the contrast of both verbs with adjectives.

Companion / state

Along with the preposiition con, estar can express companion.

-¿Con quién estás?
-Estoy con Mariel y Bruno.

Also with con, and sometimes de, estar refers to a state. The preposition is necessary to connect estar with a noun.

Tomás está con fiebre.

Estoy con sueño.

Hoy estoy de buen humor.

Remember! Estar by itself can’t be followed by a noun.

That’s why a sentence such as ‘Marcos está un profesor’ is ungrammatical.

Estar + gerund

Gerunds are words formed from a verb, edning in -ando and -iendo.

In this case, estar works as an auxiliary verb for an action in progress.

Estamos trabajando.

Carlos está viviendo en Bolivia.

When to use ser and estar in Spanish

As I told you, many teachers don’t like that rule that makes a distinction between temporary and permanent characteristics.

Actually the rule isn’t that bad, but it explains the problem just partly.

How can we improve the rule?

While ser indicates an essential characteristic of a subject, estar talks about a transformation and a result, that can be either temporary or permanent.

Also, when describing people or objects, estar is more subjective: we are talking about an impression.

Esteban es gordo.
(= Esteban belongs to the category ‘fat people’)

Esteban está gordo.
(= a transformation: from thin to fat)
(= an impression: Esteban isn’t thin anymore, but I can’t identify him as a fat person yet)

La nieve es fría.
(= Being cold as an essential characteristic of snow)

La nieve está fría.
(= I just fell while skiing and I give my impression regarding the snow)

Yoel es gracioso.
(= Yoel is a funny person)

Yoel está gracioso.
(= Yoel is being funny; temporarily funny)

Some adjectives only work with estar precisely because they are a result of a previous action or process: cansado, solo, roto, contento, embarazada, etc.

Karina está embarazada. (= She got pregnant and now she’s pregnant)

Belén está contenta. (= She got happy and now she’s happy. Contento is a resultative adjective)

Adjectives that change their meaning

There’s a group of adjectives that change their meaning depending on which verb you choose. For example:

Ser molesto (to be annoying)
Estar molesto (to be annoyed)

Ser aburrido (to be boring)
Estar aburrido (to be bored)

Ser bueno vs. estar bueno

Does this contrast deserve a subheading? Of course! You’ll see why.

With objects in general, ser bueno refers to the quality of something, ‘good’ as an essence.

Esta sopa es buena. (= This soup belongs to the category ‘good foods’)

Este libro es muy bueno.

On the other hand, estar bueno refers to both the object and the experience a person is having with it.

Esta sopa está buena. (= I’m having this soup right now and I’m enjoying it)

Este libro está muy bueno.

So far, not a big thing. But it changes when talking about people, and probably you don’t want to mess it up!

In this case, ser bueno refers to a moral quality.

Penélope es buena. (= Penélope is a good person).

But estar bueno means to be attractive physically, especially in a sexual way!

Penélope está buena. (= She’s such a fox!)

So be careful with this one because it could lead to an embarassing situation (or maybe not!).

Do you want to learn more Spanish?

I hope you have enjoyed this article about the difference between ser and estar in Spanish!

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Thank you very much and until next time,

Kevin.

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