Both ser and estar mean to be, but ser is used to refer to permanent situations, while estar is used to describe temporary conditions. Previously, we learned about this main difference between ser and estar. Although this contrast is a good guideline, there are other uses of these verbs. For example, did you know we use ser for talking about the location of events? In this post, you’ll find out what the other exceptions are!
Table of Contents
Specific uses of the verb ‘ser’
The verb ser has some uses that don’t strictly fall under the “permanent situations” category. In this section we’ll learn how to use ser for those specific cases.
Location of an eventSometimes, ser is used to express the location of an event. We already know that to identify the location of people or objects, we use the verb estar, for example, Estoy en la escuela (I’m at the school). In contrast, when talking about events (for example, a concert or a lesson), we need to use the verb ser. This might be tricky since events are not considered permanent, but they’re an exception:
La conferencia es en el auditorio principal.
The conference is in the main auditorium.
⤷TIP Remember that when talking about the date and time of an event, we also use the verb ser.
QuantityIf you want to refer to quantity, or the total number of members in a group, then the verb ser is the best choice:
En la clase de español somos 20 estudiantes.
Understood: There are 20 students in Spanish class.
Literal: In the Spanish class we are 20 students.
If you want to refer to a partial number of members in a group, estar is a better choice. Can you guess why? Because we’re talking about a temporary situation. Look at the example below:
En la clase de español somos 20 estudiantes, pero hoy solo estamos 10.
Understood: There are 20 students in Spanish class, but only 10 today.
Literal: In the Spanish class we are 20 students, but today we are only 10.
PriceYou probably know the verbs valer and costar to talk about prices, but did you know it is also possible to use the verb ser for this purpose? We can use the verb ser to ask for the price and also to mention the price in the response. Here’s an example:
¿Cuánto es? – Son cinco dólares.
How much is it? – It’s five dollars.
In some countries, you’ll hear people ask “¿cuánto es…?” followed by a noun corresponding to the thing for which we’re asking the price:
¿Cuánto es un café y una medialuna? Son cinco dólares.
How much is a coffee and a croissant? It’s five dollars.
In Spanish, we can also use the verb estar to refer to prices, but only if we want to emphasize on the changing condition of the price in currency and even in open markets:
El dólar está a 700 pesos chilenos. The dollar is at 700 Chilean pesos.
Hoy los tomates están a 25 pesos el kilo. Today tomatoes are at 25 pesos per kilo.
Assessments or opinions
Whenever we want to give our assessment or opinion on the quality of something or someone, we can use the verb ser. In this case, we’ll also need to use adjectives and have them agree according to the subject of our sentence:
Este libro es muy bueno.
This book is very good.
In this example we use the verb ser to make an assessment of the whole book; we’ve already read it and we think it’s good.
If we want to make an assessment of something in progress (for example, a book we’re currently reading), then it’s better to use estar:
Este libro está muy bueno.
This book is very good.
In this example, I’m not done reading the book, but so far I think it’s very good. It might change, but right now this is the assessment I can make of it.
Specific uses of the verb ‘estar’
The verb estar tends to be used to refer to temporary situations or conditions, or to indicate change. Let’s see these cases and some examples.
Indication of change
Estar can be used for an indication of change. Previously we saw that we use ser for description, but there are some exceptions. We can use the verb estar to emphasize a temporary situation, or to compare it with the usual or previous one. Look at the table below:
|Emphasis on a temporary situation||Comparing with the usual situation||Comparing with the previous situation|
|a) Estoy soltera. |
|b) Mi abuela tiene 95 años pero está muy lúcida. |
My grandma is 95 years old, but she’s very lucid.
|c) Tu hijo está muy alto. |
Your son is very tall.
In a) we’re referring to a temporary, current situation that is not definite and might change in the future. Who knows? I might meet the love of my life soon and marry them!
In b) we are comparing a current situation with the norm. In this particular example, we mean to say being lucid at 95 is not always common.
In c) we’re comparing a current situation to a past situation. In our example, we’re describing how tall the boy is compared to the last time we saw him.
With the adjective muerto/muerta (dead) we use the verb estar because we’re comparing a present situation with a past one. You might want to use the verb ser thinking that death is a permanent thing, right? But you need the verb estar in this case:
Mi gato está muerto.
My cat is dead.
Dates and seasonsEstar can be used to talk about dates and seasons. Do you remember we said that we use ser for date and time? Well, that’s right. But it is possible to use the verb estar when asking or telling the time in Spanish. This is quite colloquial and only used with the conjugation for nosotros. Notice that we use the preposition a to connect the verb estar and the date:
¿A qué día estamos? – Estamos a 15 de junio.
What is the date today? – It’s June 15.
We can use estar in a very similar way with seasons, but in this case remember to use the preposition en:
Ahora estamos en otoño acá en Chile.
It’s autumn here in Chile.
We can also use the verb estar to talk about the temperature. If you want to mention the temperature you’re currently experiencing, estar is the right choice:
Hoy estamos a 15 grados en Santiago. It’s 15 degrees in Santiago today.
Hoy en Bogotá están a 17 grados. In Bogotá it’s 17 degrees today.
Expressions with ‘estar’ that indicate temporary situationsFinally, there are some expressions with the verb estar that are used to express very specific temporary situations. Here’s an example:
Estoy a punto de terminar mi lección.
I’m about to finish my lesson.
Do you want to learn more expressions with the verb estar? In this list you’ll find some of the most common ones.
Adjectives that can be used with both ‘ser’ and ‘estar’
There are some adjectives in Spanish that can be used with both ser and estar but that change their meaning depending on the verb choice. Let’s see an example:
|Ellos son aburridos. |
They are boring.
|Ellos están aburridos. |
They are bored.
In this example we can see the permanent/temporary distinction applies fairly well. In the example with ser (on the left) we’re talking about a permanent quality they have. In the example on the right (with estar) we mean to say they’re only bored right now; it’s a temporary state.
Let’s see a couple more examples:
|El bebé es despierto. |
The baby is smart.
|El bebé está despierto. |
The baby is awake.
Another adjective that changes meaning is despierto/a. In the example with ser on the left, we’re talking about a permanent quality or characteristic of the baby: how smart he is; we’re making an assessment of the baby. On the right, we’re talking about a temporary condition (being awake); we’re comparing the baby now with the previous situation (being asleep).
Let’s see one more:
|Mi perro es muy molesto cuando vienen visitas. |
My dog is very annoying when we have visitors.
|Mi perro está molesto porque lo llevé al veterinario. |
My dog is angry because I took him to the vet.
In this last example, we’re using ser molesto (to be annoying) to make an assessment or give an opinion on the dog; it’s a typical behavior of him. In contrast, we’re using estar molesto (to be angry) to emphasize a temporary situation (my dog is angry now, but he’ll be fine soon) and also to compare this with previous situations (he was happy before but now that we went to the vet he’s angry).
If you want to learn more adjectives that can be used with ser and estar with a change in meaning, make sure you check out this list we’ve made for you! And, don’t miss out on our next post on the advanced uses of ser and estar!
As you can see, the uses of ser and estar in Spanish go beyond the permanent/temporary contrast. Let’s recap the new uses we’ve learned today with these tables.
Here’s a short summary of the uses of ser and estar we’ve covered in our posts (more coming soon!) so you can study the uses and examples to reinforce what you’ve just learned. Also, we’ve created this activity to practice some uses of ser and estar. There’s a key included for you to check your work. Happy learning!