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‘Ser’ and ‘estar’: what are some advanced uses of these Spanish verbs?

A young man walking down a road, wearing a backpack.

Ser and estar are also used with the advanced purpose of acting as auxiliary verbs. In our previous posts on ser and estar, we learned about the permanent vs. temporary difference of these two verbs, and also about some other uses of ser and estar that don’t necessarily follow this rule. In this post, we will review further uses of ser and estar, such as to express the passive voice and to combine with the past participle. Are you ready? Let’s dive in!

Table of Contents

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.

Using the verb ‘ser’ to form the passive voice in Spanish

Ser is used to form the passive voice in Spanish. Although the Spanish passive voice is mostly used in specific contexts, such as formal written language (for example, research reports, news stories, or academic papers), whenever we want to use this construction, we need to use a form of the verb ser, and not estar.

The passive voice is formed with the auxiliary verb ser (in any tense) plus the past participle of the main verb in the active sentence. Let’s look at some examples:

Active VoicePassive Voice
Los cocineros preparan la comida.
The cooks prepare the meal.
La comida es preparada por los cocineros.
The meal is prepared by the cooks.
La arquitecta diseñó el edificio.
The architect designed the building.
El edificio fue diseñado por la arquitecta.
The building was designed by the architect.

Do you want to learn the different forms the verb ser can take in the passive voice construction? We have created this list for you. Check it out!

Impersonal expressions and generalizations

We can make impersonal expressions and generalizations with both ser and estar. Impersonal expressions are those where the subject is indeterminate, and we use them to introduce opinions or statements. Let’s read a couple of examples: 

Es lamentable tener que cancelar el concierto.
It’s unfortunate to have to cancel the concert.

Está prohibido estacionarse en este lugar.
It’s forbidden to park in this place.

In case you’re wondering about some of the impersonal expressions you can make with the verb ser and estar we’ve prepared another list for you. Some of these impersonal expressions are also very useful when introducing the Spanish subjunctive.

Using the verb ‘estar’ + past participle

  • To indicate the outcome of an action

    We can also use the verb estar along with a past participle (for example: abierto (open), comido (eaten), bebido (drunk)) to indicate the outcome of an action or event. Since we’re using the past participles as adjectives in this particular context, remember we need to make them agree in gender and number with the nouns they modify. Let’s see some examples below: 

La restricción terminó y, cuando salimos, todos los restaurantes estaban abiertos.
The restriction ended and, when we went out, all the restaurants were open.

Nuestra presentación fue todo un éxito. Nosotras estábamos muy sorprendidas.
Our presentation was a success. We were very surprised.

IMPORTANT

We can use the verb ser with a past participle, but this is exclusive to the passive voice. In the case of estar, we’re not describing the state of a person or object, we’re just describing an action. Let’s compare both possibilities:

ser + past participleestar + past participle
La comida es preparada por los cocineros.
The meal is cooked by the chefs.
El salón está decorado para la fiesta.
The hall is decorated for the party.

In the sentence on the left, we’re using ser to make the passive voice. We’re describing an action and putting emphasis on it (es preparada (is prepared)). The agent (the person or thing that performs the action) who prepared the food, is not that important and that’s why we don’t emphasize that.

In the example on the right, we want to emphasize the fact that there is a party planned and that the hall being decorated is the resulting state of that planned event.

As you can see, in any case it’s very important to make the participles agree with the nouns they modify. The participles behave just like adjectives in Spanish!

  • To mention the condition of an object​

    It is also possible to use the verb estar and a past participle to describe the condition of an animal or an object. This use of the verb estar is aligned with what we already know about temporary events. Let’s see a couple of examples:

La ventana está abierta. The window is open.
El perro está dormido. The dog is asleep.

Using the verb ‘estar’ + gerund to form the present progressive

Finally, the verb estar is used as the auxiliary verb, along with the gerund, to form the Spanish present progressive. This is a tense we use when we want to talk about actions in progress at a time now or around the present. The equivalent in English is when we use the verb “to be” + a verb ending in “-ing” (“I’m running”), but it’s not always used the same way.

Remember that with this construction you need to add the endings –ando or-iendo to the verb, for example: estudiando (studying) orcomiendo (eating). Let’s take a look at a few examples: 

estás leyendo un artículo en español. You are reading an article in Spanish.
Mi madre está trabajando en el computador.   My mother is working on the computer.

In summary

Let’s see what we have just learned about the uses of ser and estar as auxiliary verbs:  

  • We can use the verb ser with a past participle to make the passive voice in Spanish. The passive voice is a construction that is highly used in the written formal language, and that places more emphasis on the action itself. 
  • We can make impersonal expressions and generalizations with the verbs ser and estar. Make sure you check out the list of Spanish impersonal expressions we created for you. 
  • We can use the verb estar with a past participle to indicate the outcome of an action, or to mention the temporary condition of an object.  
  • We can use the verb estar with a gerund to form the present progressive and talk about ongoing actions in the present. 

This post marks the end of our series on the uses of ser and estar. We hope you have a better understanding of these tricky Spanish verbs. 

Before you leave, we’d like to invite you to work on this exercise to practice the uses of ser and estar covered in this post. Happy learning!

Are you interested in learning more about Spanish Grammar? Check out our Spanish Grammar Homepage.
Unpacking the grammar

Auxiliary verbs are verbs like “to be” or “to have” in English that “help” to form tenses or voices.
In Spanish, ser or estar can work as an auxiliary verb.

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

Past Participles are forms of a verb that are used and treated like adjectives. They often accompany auxiliary verbs to form compound verb forms.

  • In Spanish, regular past participles end in “-ado” or “ -ido,” for example: hablado (spoken), comido (eaten). Irregular past participles end in “-to” or “-cho,” for example: escrito (written), hecho (done).

Gerund is a verb form that ends in “-ing” and that shows the progression of an action. 

  • In Spanish, the gerund ends in “-ando” or “-iendo,” for example: hablando (speaking), comiendo (eating).
Meet The Author:
Natalia Molina
Natalia Molina Ceballos
Spanish Coach
Natalia is a Spanish coach at Mango Languages.

To embark on your next language adventure, join the Mango fam!

Extra Resources:

Ser in the passive voice
Impersonal expressions

Activities:

Ser or estar activity

Activities:

Ser or estar activity

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