The verbs ser and estar are used to express “to be” in Spanish. Although they may have the same translation in English, they are not interchangeable. One way to think about it is that oftentimes ser is used to express permanent qualities, while estar expresses temporary situations. But what is permanent and what is temporary? Keep reading to find out!
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For a review of grammar terms used in this post, make sure to check out the Unpacking the grammar section at the end of the post.
What is the main difference between ‘ser’ and ‘estar’?
The main differences between ser and estar include that ser is used for permanent qualities, like your name, your place of origin, and your physical appearance, while estar is used to talk about temporary situations, such as how you’re feeling right now or your location. But how about your occupation, ideology, or relationships? To help you decide, let’s learn some basic guidelines, starting with the verb ser!
Using the verb ‘ser’ to express permanent qualities
Ser expresses the following permanent qualities:
Identification and description of people or thingsSer is used for identification or to offer a description of people or things. When we want to say who someone is or what something is, or when we want to make descriptions (referring to people’s physical or personality traits, or an object’s color, shape, characteristic, or brand), then we need to use the verb ser. Let’s take a look:
Ella es María.
She is María.
María es delgada y tímida.
María is thin (physical traits) and shy (personality).
Eso es un computador.
That is a computer.
El computador es gris, rectangular y moderno.
The computer is gray (color), rectangular (shape), and modern (characteristic).
Occupation, nationality, ideologyWe always use the verb ser to talk about occupation, nationality, and ideology. Although these features may change, they are perceived as permanent descriptions of a person or thing. Read the following examples to learn more about María:
María es profesora de español, es colombiana y es católica.
María is a Spanish teacher (occupation), she’s Colombian (nationality),
and she’s Catholic (ideology).
RelationshipsWe can also use the verb ser to indicate relationships, or how people are connected; for example, when talking about family relationships. Take a look:
Ella es María y él es su esposo Diego. She is María and he is her husband, Diego.
‘Ser’ + ‘de’ (+ origin, material, or possession)
You can combine the verb ser and the preposition de to indicate: origin, material, and possession. Let’s add a bit more information about María.
|Ser + de||Origin||María es de Bogotá.||María is from Bogotá.|
|Material||El computador es de metal.||The computer is made of metal.|
|Possession||Ese computador es de María.||That computeris María’s.|
|REMINDER: to form the possessive in Spanish, use the formula: object + ser + de + owner|
Using the verb ‘ser’ with time
Aside from permanent qualities, the verb ser can be used with time. When we talk about the time (hour), days, and the date, holidays or anniversaries, most of the time we use the verb ser. This may sound counterintuitive since time flies and is not permanent, but this is how it is. Let’s see a couple of examples:
Son las 3 de la tarde.
It’s 3 in the afternoon (time).
Ayer fue jueves.
Yesterday it was Thursday (day).
Hoy es 15 de abril.
It’s 3 in the afternoon (time).
Mañana será mi cumpleaños.
Tomorrow will be my birthday.
¿Cuándo es Navidad este año?
When is Christmas this year?
If you need a refresher on how to tell time in Spanish we have something for you!
Physical and emotional statesWhen describing a physical or emotional state, meaning a temporary feeling, we use the verb estar. In this specific case, it’s accompanied by adjectives that indicate physical and emotional temporary states, words like: enfermo (sick), cansado (tired), or contento (happy). Read the examples below:
¿Cómo estás hoy, María? → Estoy un poco cansada.
How are you today, María? → I’m a bit tired.
In this example, María says that she’s tired today. She’s not tired all the time; this is not a permanent physical state.
Remember that you need to make the gender and number of Spanish adjectives agree with the subject of the verb estar.
We can also describe the temporary situation or condition of an object using the verb estar. In this case, we should also use adjectives and make them agree appropriately. Let’s see how this looks:
Mi casa está muy desordenada. My house is very messy.
Again, we’re referring to a temporary situation or condition. We don’t mean to say the house is always messy. It may be that the house is messy now because there was a party yesterday, but this is not a permanent condition.
Location of someone or something
Finally, the verb estar is used in Spanish to refer to the location of a person or an object. Let’s look:
María y Diego están en Colombia. María and Diego are in Colombia.
Las llaves están sobre la mesa. The keys are on the table.
In Spanish, it’s also very common to use the verb estar plus the name of a person to ask if such a person is at home or at some other usual place. Read the following examples to know more:
Buenas tardes. ¿Está la señora Ruiz? Good afternoon. Is Mrs. Ruiz at home?
Hola. ¿Está el jefe? Hello. Is the boss in his office?
When we refer to the location of a place (for example: a city, a country, a park), or the location of a building (for example: a hospital, an embassy, a stadium) we also use the verb estar. This might be counterintuitive since it refers to a permanent quality, but it is one of the exceptions we’ll find along the way. Let’s take a look at the example below:
¿Dónde está Santiago? → Está en el centro de Chile.
Where is Santiago? → It’s in the center of Chile.
We have now covered the main difference between these two verbs, but as you can imagine, this is not the whole story. Please read our second post on other ways to use ser and estar , where we explore their uses in more detail. When you’re ready for the challenge, head over to our final post to learn about the advanced uses of ser and estar.
In this post, we have covered the basic uses of ser and estar. Look at the following summary chart:
|Identification and description of people or things |
- Soy Juanita. I’m Juanita.
- El computador es caro.
The computer is expensive.
|Occupation, nationality, ideology |
- Soy enfermera. I’m a nurse.
- Soy peruana. I’m Peruvian.
- Soy ambientalista.
I'm an environmentalist.
- Soy la hermana de Susana.
I’m Susana’s sister.
|Ser + de → origin, material, possession |
- Soy de Lima. I’m from Lima.
- El reloj es de plástico.
The watch is made of plastic.
- El reloj es de Susana.
The watch is Susana’s.
|Time, day, and date |
- Es la una. It’s 1:00.
- Es lunes. It’s Monday.
- Hoy es 15 de junio. Today is June 15th.
|Physical and emotional states |
- Estoy mareada. I’m dizzy.
- Estoy emocionada. I’m excited.
- Este día está ocupado.
This day is busy.
|Location of people or objects|
- Mi mamá está en la oficina.
My mother is in the office.
- Mis libros están en la habitación.
My books are in the room.
|Location of a place|
- Madrid está en España.
Madrid is in Spain.
In the following website, you’ll find an acronym that might help you remember when to use ser and estar. Here’s another acronym for learning ser and estar. Take a look at both and see which will help you remember better!
We’ve also included the conjugations of ser and estar here for you to study.
Before you leave, why don’t you check what you’ve just learned with these activities? A key is included so you can check your work. Happy learning!
Gender represents categories in which nouns are split based on endings. In Spanish, there are two: masculine and feminine.
el chico (m.) the boy
la chica (f.) the girl
Adjectives are words that are used to describe something, including people, animals, things, places, or ideas. Adjectives are used to make many types of descriptions, such as stating the color, amount, category, appearance, or possession of something or someone.
el niño pequeño the small child