Spanish Lessons in Ipswich
Hamlet to be or not to be

Differentiating between ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ in Spanish

When you have two verbs both of which translate as to be, students of Spanish needs to be clear on the circumstances where they can use each one correctly. Even though bilinguals are smarter than average, we sometimes need a little extra help. This article aims to provide some clarity on how to use ser and estar appropriately.

The chances are, you have already been told that ser is used to talk about conditions that can’t easily be changed, for example being of a certain nationality or profession, and that estar is for those things that we expect to change such as mood or weather. In addition, you will also have been told that ‘estar’ is used to talk about where something or someone is.

This is all helpful to a point but the logic is not without its flaws. People do, for instance change nationality and profession. By the same token, whilst it’s extremely unusual for a building to be moved it is correct to say ‘mi casa está allí’

Fortunately, it is a common problem and a couple of mnemonics can help us use the most appropriate verb.

Where to use ‘estar’

In summary, use ‘estar’ to talk about the position or location of a person or thing, an ongoing action, a condition or an emotion. The initial letters of the words in bold give us the acronym PLACE.

This gives us the following examples:

PPositionÉl está apoyado contra una pared.He is leaning against a wall.
¿Estás sentado? Are you sitting down?
LLocationEl libro está en la mesa.The book is on the table.
Ellos están en la casa.They are in the house.
AActionEstán leyendo. They are reading.
¿Estáis escuchando?Are you listening?
CConditionMi madre está enferma. My mother is ill.
El agua está caliente.The water is warm.
EEmotionÉl está enojado. He is angry.
Estamos encantados. We are delighted.

For some, committing the above examples to memory goes a long way towards helping choose the correct verb. This is because when you know how to use estar, it is likely that ser fits in all other situations. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarification and balance, we’ll also look at best practice for the use of ser.

Where to use ‘ser’

Whereas PLACE can help us remember how to use estar, DOCTOR is a useful mnemonic for ser.

DDescriptionYo soy escocés.I am Scottish.
Tú eres alta. You are tall.
Él es Cristóbal.He is Cristóbal.
OOccupationSois maestros.You are teachers.
Somos marineros.We are sailors.
¿Usted es campesina?Are you a farmer?
CCharacteristicMi padre es valiente.My father is brave
Isabel es considerada.Isabel is considerate.
Tu primo es guapo.Your cousin is handsome.
TTimeHoy es lunes.Today is Monday.
Son las nueve. It is nine o’clock.
Es Semana Santa.It is Holy Week.
OOriginÉl es de Colombia.He is from Colombia.
La mesa es de mármol. The table is marble.
Las naranjas son de España.The oranges are from Spain.
RRelationshipPaco es mi hermano.Paco is my brother.
Esa mujer es mi tía.That woman is my aunt.
Soy tu padre. I am your father.

Problems with ‘ser’ and ‘estar’

Once you have this all clear in your mind, you might want to take on a related challenge. You can use certain words with either ser or estar but the meaning can change considerably. Some good examples are as follows:

Estar phraseSer phrase
estar viejoto look oldser viejoto be old
estar cansadoto be tiredser cansadoto be a tiring person
estar pesadoto be annoyingser pesadoto be heavy/to be boring
estar orgullosoto be proudser orgullosoto be conceited or vain
estar pálidoto be paleser pálidoto be pale-skinned
estar morenoto be tannedser morenoto be dark-skinned
estar verdeto be unripeser verdeto be green
estar graveto be seriously illser graveto be serious
estar seguroto be certainser seguroto be safe
estar listoto be readyser listoto be clever
estar ricoto be tastyser ricoto be rich
estar maloto be illser maloto be bad
estar aburridoto be boredser aburridoto be boring
estar vivoto be aliveser vivoto be sharp
estar buenoto be tasty/attractiveser buenoto be good

With practice, you will be using ser and estar correctly as it were second nature. Meeting regularly with a Spanish speaking group will give you maximum opportunity to practise and increase your knowledge along the way.

In addition, there are numerous resources on the internet. You can read more on using ser and estar here.



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