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Ser and Estar

En España, hoy es lunes el 10 de diciembre de 2018.


2014-10-04 – © Baldo Partners: Hector Cantú & Carlos Castellanos; Universal UClick

Ser and Estar both frequently translate into English as a form of the verb “to be”. However, they are NOT interchangeable and misuse can lead to confusion. In general, it’s not a big deal and most native speakers of Spanish will be able to figure out what you’re trying to say. Nevertheless, the distinction between the two verbs is not difficult, and with practice, you’ll sound much better if you can use them correctly.

Now let me get this on record right now:


Anyone who has ever told you this was either doing the equivalent of telling you that babies come from storks, or, they just didn’t understand the difference themselves and are making stuff up. Sure, some people will tell you that it’s only a “rule of thumb”, but think about it. You’ve got 10 fingers and only two of them are thumbs. Do you really want to be right only 2 out of 10 times?

Once again, ser vs. estar HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH TEMPORARY vs. PERMANENT! If you have ever been told that, or thought it, put it out of your mind right now. It’s wrong wrong wrong! (By way of example, being dead is pretty permanent, yet in Spanish you would always say Está muerto. Further, hair color is pretty temporary, yet you would still say El pelo de María es verde. I have yet to see a textbook that ever said anything about temporary vs. permanent—thank goodness at least for that!)

Now, many textbooks do present a long list of cases where one uses ser vs. estar. I have even created such lists for students myself in the past. They often look something like the one below (note that I really don’t want you to focus too much on this—there’s a MUCH easier, more native way to distinguish them that we’ll discuss further on). Pay particular attention to the “Location” row, item 3 in the list below.

Uses of SerUses of Estar
1. Inherent Characteristics:
  • Juan es alto.
  • María es de España.
  • Miguel es médico.
  • El coche es de mi padre.
1. State or Condition of “Being”:
  • Mi abuelo está muerto.
  • Estoy enfermo.
  • Miguel estaba enojado conmigo.
2. Expressions with time:
  • Son las ocho y media.
  • ¿Qué hora es?
  • Hoy es el veinte de martes.
2. Result of Change:
  • Marcos, ¡qué guapo estás hoy!
  • La sopa está fría.
3. Location of events: (takes place)
  • La fiesta es en la casa de Margarita.
  • El examen fue en la universidad.
3. Location of persons, places, or things:
  • Mi casa está en la calle principal.
  • ¿Dónde están mis vaqueros?
  • María no está aquí. Está en el hospital.
4. With impersonal expressions:
  • Es necesario estudiar.
  • Es preciso comer bien.
4. Progressive tense:
  • Estamos estudiando.
  • Estaba corriendo por el parque.
  • Estaré estudiando el sábado.
5. The passive voice:
  • Este cuadro fue pintado por El Greco.
  • Mi coche fue robado por el ladrón.

Now ask yourself: What kind of crazy language uses a different verb for location depending upon the kind of thing? That’s ridiculous, and language is never ridiculous. There is always a relatively simple, logical reason for the way things are in a language (except maybe for English, but that’s another story ☺). So the kind of thing located somewhere actually has no bearing on the verb used. It must be something else, much easier to determine.

Obviously a native speaker of Spanish does not run through a list of cases when he or she decides which verb to use. There has to be a simple, obvious distinction. As luck would have it, most of the lists like the one above contain a grain of truth, and we’re going to focus on that.

The ONLY distinction between Ser and Estar

Let’s first make sure you understand the term “Inherent Characteristic.” Do not confuse “inherent” with “inherit”. This has nothing to do with heredity—what you inherit from your parents. An “inherent characteristic” is something that you would use to describe something. You might describe someone as “tall”. That’s an inherent characteristic. You might describe someone by saying she is the girl with green hair. That’s an inherent characteristic. You might describe the day by saying it’s Tuesday. Again, an inherent characteristic.

Anyway, here it is, the ONLY distiction between ser and estar:

Ser is used with inherent characteristics.

Estar is used with state or condition of being.

There are NO other distinctions! All of the other rules are really just special cases of the above. To focus on our particular example, location, now it can be seen to make sense. Location actually has nothing to do with the distinction. However cute, How you feel and where you are, always use the verb estar is a child’s way of thinking about things and doesn’t actually make sense.

Let me expand. If someone tells you that there is a new kid in school, the next obvious question is “What is he like?” In other words, tell me about his inherent characteristics. Obviously ser is used. If someone then tells you that there is a party this weekend, the next obvious question is “Where is it?” This isn’t a state/condition question. It’s an inherent characteristic question. The location of a party is an inherent characteristic of the party. Therefore in Spanish we use ser: ¿Dónde es la fiesta?

What about the other “rules” in the list above?

Time? The current time is an inherent characteristic of the moment.
Result of change? This is just the current state of a person or thing.
The progressive tense? Just an expression of current condition.
The passive voice? Just a case of inherent characteristic (an inherent characteristic of a book is that it was written by someone).

So, what’s the bottom line? Ignore all the lists and rules you have ever learned. They were probably just training wheels for you when you were a kid in grade school. Now you’re a young adult and can learn the truth. (You don’t still believe that the stork brings babies, do you?) Think only about the distinction between inherent characteristics and states or conditions of being and you’ll always make the correct verb selection.

And here are some more examples of the use of ser and/or estar:

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