Spanish uses the verbs hay (a form of verb haber (to have)) and estar (to be) to express existence and location. In these contexts, these verbs can cause confusion because they are equivalent to the verb “to be” in English: There is a book, the book is on the table. However, in Spanish these two verbs are used very differently: Hay is used for unspecified objects (hay un libro) and estar for specified ones (el libro está sobre la mesa). Besides this distinction, in Spanish there are specific words (such as definite and indefinite articles, demonstrative and possessive adjectives, etc.) that will help you determine which verb to use. So, how can we distinguish between hay and estar? Find practical answers below!
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What is ‘hay’ in Spanish?
“Hay” is a fixed form of the verb haber (to have), used as the third person form singular and plural. It is used to talk about existence in the present tense and it means “there is/there are.” Furthermore, it is an impersonal verb, which means that there is no specific subject, and it is followed by a direct object. This direct object can be a singular or plural noun.
There is a suitcase. There are suitcases.
And the response was probably something along the lines of:
En la clase hay 20 sillas, hay un escritorio, hay una televisión, y hay muchos estudiantes.
In the classroom there are 20 chairs, there is one desk, there is one tv and there are many students.
- It can be used to express the mere existence of something or someone:
- It can also be used with abstract concepts:
- It can also express availability:
- Besides talking about whether a concept, person, or object exists or is available, it can also be used to express location:
¿Hay galletas en la alacena? -Sí, compré una caja nueva ayer.
Are there cookies in the pantry? – Yes, I bought a new box yesterday.
¿Dónde hay una farmacia? -Hay una en la esquina.
Where is a pharmacy? There’s one in the corner.
…but don’t we use ‘estar’ for location in Spanish?
When to use ‘hay’ and when to use ‘estar’?
- If you already know about the person/concept/place/thing and you just want to know where it is, use estar.
Here, you know there’s a theater but you just don’t know where.
- But, if you don’t know if such person/concept/place/thing exists, then use hay:
–¿Hay un teatro en esta ciudad?
–Sí, hay uno en la avenida principal. Está cerca del banco.
–Is there a theater in this city?
–Yes, there’s one on the main avenue. It is close to the bank.
Notice that we asked if the city had a theater using hay, and once we knew about the existence of the theater then we specified its location by using estar. Pretty cool, huh?
The same idea applies if we want to express availability. For example:
What is the difference between ¿Dónde hay un café? and ¿Dónde está el café? (Where is the coffee shop?).
You got this! In the question ¿Dónde hay un café? (Literal: Where is there a coffee shop?), we don’t know if there is a coffee shop; we may take for granted that there is one, and we want to know where it is.
But, in the question ¿Dónde está el café? (Where is the coffee shop?), we already know the coffee shop exists and we just want to know its location.
Besides the subtle meaning these two verbs can convey, there are some structural tips that will take your mastery of these verbs to the next level!
In these examples, we are talking about the existence/location of the backpack, and notice that with hay, the word mochila goes with the indefinite article una (a) whereas with estar, mochila goes with the definite article la (the). So let’s take a look at these cues!
- Structural cues for hay
|HAY + ↴||Example|
|indefinite articles (un, una, unos, |
unas) + noun
|Hay unas sillas. There are chairs.|
|noun with no article
||Hay lugar. There is room.|
Hay amor. There is love.
Hay tareas que hacer. There are chores to do.
|partitive nouns||Hay un kilo de azúcar. There is a kilo of sugar.|
|numbers or amounts||Hay 12 estudiantes. There are twelve students.|
|quantifiers||Hay un poco de café.
There is a bit of coffee.|
Hay mucho ruido. There is a lot of noise.
|Indefinite pronouns||¿Hay alguien aquí? Is there someone here?|
No hay nadie. There is nobody.
What is in the fridge?
There is nothing.
Hay una computadora. There is a computer.
Hay la computadora.
- when listing a series of specific objects that are known previously or from context:
—¿Hay teléfonos en esa tienda?
—Are there phones in that store?
—Sí, solo hay los inalámbricos y los móviles.
—Yes, there are only the wireless ones and the mobiles.
- when the noun following hay serves to quantify something:
Esta vez hay el doble de personas en asistencia.
This time there are double the people in attendance.
- when describing customs or habits:
Ya no hay la costumbre de mandar cartas.
There is no longer the habit of sending letters.
- Structural cues for estar:
|definite article (el, la, los,|
|Las sillas están junto a la mesa. The chairs are next to the table.|
|possessive adjective (mi,|
|Mis libretas están en la sala. My notebooks are in the living room.|
(este, ese, aquel…)
|Esa ropa vieja está en el clóset. That old clothes are in the closet.|
|proper nouns||Juan está en la entrada. Juan is at the entrance.|
|Las libretas están sobre el escritorio. The notebooks are on the desk.|
Hay libretas sobre el escritorio. There are notebooks on the desk.
- “Hay” can be used to express the existence and location of unspecified objects or people.
- The structural cues with hay are: indefinite articles and pronouns, numbers and quantifiers + noun, and nouns with no article.
- “Estar” is used to describe the location of objects, places, and people we already know exist.
- The structural cues with estar are: definite articles, possessive and demonstrative adjectives + nouns, and proper nouns.
Impersonal verbs do not have a specific subject like the English “it,” but this “it” does not refer to any specific thing: It rains, It is cold.
Partitive noun is a word or phrase used to indicate a part or quantity of something. For example: a glass of water, a piece of cheese.