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Ser vs Estar - the Definitive Guide

how to conjugate spanish verbs ser vs estar large
Using ser vs estar is one of the most puzzling aspects of learning Spanish for anyone not used to the concept of having two distinct verbs for to be. Don’t feel discouraged though, every language has more and less difficult parts and the most frequently used verbs are usually also the most irregular. Even in English the verb to be conjugates very irregularly.

Not every instance of the English to be can be translated to ser or estar. And those which can be translated may as well be substituted with alternative phrases in most cases. So for the best results focus on translating the meaning, not the words. This article will help you understand how to do it.

We don’t like learning by heart so we always look for ways to avoid it. Instead of the usual acronyms and long lists of rules and exceptions, we’ll concentrate first on how to look at this matter from different angles and use logical thinking to decide which verb to use. But if you’re looking for rules, they are presented further on as well.

Of course some things just have to be memorized, especially at the beginning. But the more of them we may eliminate the faster and more enjoyable the progress will be.

For example, memorizing irregular conjugation forms is necessary, because guessing that soy, era and fui are all forms of the verb ser is not easy. It is worth the effort as these two verbs belong to the most frequently used. Also not every form needs to be memorized because they don’t conjugate irregularly in every tense. Most of the forms may be created following regular rules like in case of the Condicional and Futuro tenses.

It’s often possible to avoid the Ser vs Estar dilemma

The choice of ser vs estar may very often be avoided using alternative phrases. Learning these has great additional advantages. You will enrich your vocabulary and thus sound way more eloquent. You will understand more in conversations as different people have different speaking styles. For instance the sentence:

¿Estás preocupado por la situación?
Are you concerned about the situation?

could be substituted with one of the following:

¿Te sientes preocupado por la situación?
Do you feel concerned about the situation?
¿Te encuentras preocupado por la situación?
Do you find yourself concerned about the situation?
Pareces preocupado por la situación, ¿es así?
You seem concerned about the situation, is that right?
¿Te preocupas por la situación?
Do you worry about the situation?
¿Te preocupa la situación?
Does the situation worry you?

If you happen to use ser/estar and are uncertain about your choice, you can simply get more specific by explaining when, why, etc:

Creo que está aburrida.
Hoy.. Por la fiesta.. Porque no pasa nada especial.
I think she’s bored.
Today.. By the party.. Because there’s nothing special going on.

To emphasize that you mean only an unusual state or a temporary condition, use expressions like:

  • a vecessometimes
  • ahora / ahora mismonow / right now
  • en este momentoat the moment
  • ocasionalmenteoccasionally
  • raramente / rara vez / raras vecesrarely
  • de vez en cuando / de cuando en cuando / de tiempo en tiempoonce in a while / every so often / from time to time

To emphasize that you mean a usual state, normal condition, quality or characteristic, use expressions like:

  • siemprealways
  • cada vezevery time
  • día a díaday after day
  • una y otra vezover and over again / time after time
  • todo el rato / todo el tiempoall the time

Not every English to be translates to Ser or Estar

An important thing to remember is that not all to be English forms may translate directly to one of the to be forms in Spanish:

Ya tengo 18 años así que soy un adulto.
I am already 18 years old so I am an adult.
El bebé está llorando porque tiene hambre.
The baby is crying because it is hungry.
Toma la chaqueta porque hoy hace frío.
Take the jacket because it is cold today.

So in these examples we see that the verb tener is used when talking about the age, hunger or thirst. The verb hacer is used when talking about the weather.

Beware the Permanent/Temporary oversimplification for Ser vs Estar

You’ve probably already heard that ser is usually used when referring to something permanent and estar when referring to something temporary. While it is convenient, it is also oversimplified and after making some progress in learning Spanish it becomes confusing and raises many questions. Look at it as a very general tip with many exceptions or simply one of the different points of view.

It is more useful to think about what identifies the subject, what are its integral parts versus what state of being the subject is in. Ser is used when describing something that distinguishes the subject from others. It includes physical description, personality or character, what things are made of, race, gender, origin, etc. Estar is used when describing a condition that distinguishes the current state of being of the subject from its other possible states of being.

For instance, let’s analyze the adjective muerto in the following sentence:

Estoy llorando porque mi conejo está muerto.
I’m crying because my rabbit is dead.

The permanent/temporary tip doesn’t work here. People get confused by it because being dead is quite permanent. But the state of being tip explains it. If you looked at this particular animal (subject you could identify as in many aspects unique), you wouldn’t say that it is now some hairy thing, but rather:

Es mi conejo / Fue mi conejo.
It is my rabbit / It was my rabbit.
I can uniquely identify this animal as my rabbit.
Es pequeñito y blanco / Fue pequeñito y blanco.
It is tiny and white / It was tiny and white.
I can identify it by its characteristics, body size and fur color.
Ahora está muerto.
It is dead now.
The state of being it’s now in is called ‘dead’.
Pero todavía es mi conejo y gran amigo.
But it still is my rabbit and a great friend.
Regardless of its state of being I can still identify it as my rabbit and a great friend.
Si estuviera vivo ahora estaría saltando por todos lados.
If it was alive today it would be jumping all around.
If it was in the state of being called ‘alive’ it would surely also be in the ‘jumping’ state of being. No doubt it would prefer that over other states of being, like watching TV or sleeping under the carpet.

The first few examples are written in present and past tenses because you could use any of them in reality. It would depend on the context, your mood and what you would like to express.
Image of water - states of matter gas / liquid / solid
So we clearly see how ser goes with what identifies a man as a man, a rabbit as a rabbit or a thing as a thing. And how estar goes with what describes how they are doing, what is happening to them, what they experience, etc.

The next dose of examples describes water which changes its states of matter. Note how ser is used for identification and how estar is used for state description. All refer to water in three different states of matter, just from different points of view.

Point of view #1 – three different things

Esto es el vapor. El vapor es caliente y volátil.
This is steam. Steam is hot and volatile.
We identify the subject as steam and say that its characteristics include being hot and volatile. That’s what differentiates it from water and ice.
Esto es el agua. El agua es líquida y transparente.
This is water. Water is liquid and transparent.
We identify the subject as water and say that its characteristics include being liquid and transparent. That’s what differentiates it from steam and ice.
Esto es el hielo. El hielo es muy frío y duro.
This is ice. Ice is very cold and hard.
We identify the subject as ice and say that its characteristics include being cold and hard. That’s what differentiates it from steam and water.

Point of view #2 – one thing in three different states

Esto es el agua. El agua ahora está caliente y por eso está en el estado gaseoso.
This is water. Water is now hot and because of that it is in gas state.
We identify the subject as water and notice what state it is in, what’s happening to it. It now has high temperature and is in gas form. When it loses the temperature it will get back to its usual state.
Esto es el agua. El agua ahora está en la temperatura ambiente y por eso está en el estado líquido.
This is water. Water is now in the room temperature and because of that it is in liquid state.
We identify the subject as water and notice what state it is in, what’s happening to it. It now has so called room temperature so it is in its most usual, liquid state.
Esto es el agua. El agua ahora está muy fría y por eso está en el estado sólido.
This is water. Water now has very low temperature and because of that it is in the solid state.
We identify the subject as water and notice what state it is in, what’s happening to it. It now has very low temperature so it is in ice form. When it gains the temperature again it will get back to its usual state. And even if it was trapped in the center of a huge iceberg and it looked like it would stay there for centuries or forever, our point of view would still be that it is water so we would still use estar to describe its state.

Hopefully at this stage the concept of having two separate to be words is much more clear. Maybe you even start seeing how powerful it actually is. It allows these two single words be more than just auxiliary verbs. Ser and Estar may carry so much additional meaning. So if you are not learning it just to pass an exam and forget, you should actually enjoy this idea.

When the correct choice between Ser and Estar is the most important

Luckily, in most cases, if you choose incorrectly which verb to use you will still be easily understood. What you need to be careful about are the cases where the verb is followed by an adjective. That’s because the meaning of the adjective may be different when used with ser and different when used with estar.

Classical examples of this would be the following adjectives:

  • aburrido which with ser means to be boring and with estar means to be bored
  • interesado which with ser means to be selfish and with estar means to be interested
  • listo which with ser means to be clever and with estar means to be prepared

We have a longer list of these adjectives, but for brevity it was moved to a separate page: Ser vs Estar – Adjectives changing Meaning. This list also includes example sentences.

Rules for choosing between Ser and Estar

You can now perhaps do without the need for rules. However, because we recommend looking at the topic from different angles, it’s worth at least getting familiar with them. Be particularly careful with the rules having exceptions. Such rules are usually too general and although using them is convenient, they also tend to cause the most confusion.

The list of rules is not short. If you intend to learn them by heart, you may want to use a shortcut. You could first learn only the ones for estar and by elimination use ser in all other cases. Or vice-versa, learn only the ser rules if they seem easier to remember.

A list of rules for Estar

    Estar is used to specify Location

    The location of events, the origin
We use estar when we want to specify location, which may be:

  • geographic
  • physical
  • permanent
  • temporary
  • conceptual
  • imaginary
Todavía estamos en casa pero estarémos en tu lugar en 15 minutos.
We are still at home but we will be at your place in 15 minutes.

An important exception is that the verb ser must be used to specify the location of events, like expositions, shows, concerts, parties:

La fiesta es el sábado en la casa de Jorge.
The party is on Saturday at George’s house.

Note that the most often used preposition in this case is en. It translates to English in, on or at.

    Estar is used to describe Emotions

    No exceptions

When talking about emotions, moods or feelings we should always use estar, e.g.:

Alejandro estaba contento porque recibió un buen regalo de su novia.
Alejandro was happy because he got a nice gift from his girlfriend

    Estar is used to describe Condition

    No exceptions
We use estar when asking or describing how someone or something is, in what state, in what physical or mental condition:

Manuel está muy guapo hoy con su traje nuevo.
Manuel looks very handsome today in his new suit.

Note that we would use estar in this case regardless of our general opinion about Manuel:

  • If we thought that Manuel is normally not handsome, then using estar we would express our observation that the suit makes a real, positive difference.
  • If we thought that Manuel is always handsome, we would still use estar to emphasize that it’s particularly true today and thanks to the new suit which we like.

    Estar is used to describe Position

    No exceptions
To describe the physical position, pose or posture of the subject, we must use estar:

Estuve inclinado lavando a mi perro durante demasiado tiempo y ahora me duele la espalda.
I was slouched down washing my dog for too long and now my back hurts.

    Estar is used as an auxiliary verb in Progressive Tenses

    No exceptions
The progressive tenses are created using an inflected form of the verb estar and the gerund form of the main verb. Practically any tense can be used for estar to form a progressive, but the Presente (Simple Present) and Imperfecto (Imperfect) tenses are most common.

A progressive tense is used to express motion, an ongoing action, an action viewed as being in progress:

Me parece que Clara está cometiendo un gran error.
I think that Clara is making a big mistake.

Note that the other -ing constructions, that we are used to in English, are not transferable to Spanish:

We’d like to say goodbye because we are leaving soon.
Querríamos despedirnos porque salimos pronto.
NOT: Querríamos despedirnos porque estamos saliendo pronto.

    Estar is used to describe Temporary States

    Multiple exceptions
The most general and most often heard rule for estar is that it is used when describing temporary aspects of things as opposed to ser which is used for permanent aspects. Take a look at the following example sentence. By using ser we would like to express that in our opinion Paula is always beautiful, it is her characteristic. But we would also like to emphasize that right now she is particularly beautiful and estar serves this purpose:

Paula es guapa pero ahora está más guapa que nunca.
Paula is beautiful but now she is more beautiful than ever.

This rule is so general that it has multiple exceptions and is a frequent source of confusion. An example question which is often asked is:

  • Why is estar used to say that someone is dead, while death seems quite permanent?

It was already explained in a previous section, so here we would only like to emphasize again that you should not rely on this rule too much. It’s true that it is very convenient, but use it as the last resort. In the long run, it will do more harm than good to your understanding of the ser vs estar subject.

Comix recap of Estar rules

Read the comix, identify all the rules used, which influenced the choice between ser and estar. Transcription with translations and explanations is provided below the comix.

estar story how to conjugate spanish verbs
- ¡Hola hijo, Mamá aquí! ¿Dónde estás? Estoy preocupada.
- Hi son, Mom here! Where are you? I’m worried.
- ¡Hola Mamá! Estoy navegando en el mar Caribe.
- Hi Mom. I’m sailing in the Caribbean sea.
- Estaba en Jamaica durante una semana y mañana estaré en Cuba.
- I was in Jamaica for a week and tomorrow I will be in Cuba.
- ¿Y cómo está el tiempo? ¡Aquí hay una tormenta terrible!
- And how is the weather? There is a terrible storm here!
- Aquí hace muy buen tiempo y el mar está tranquilo. No te preocupes Mamá, estoy seguro que no va a pasar nada malo.
- Here the weather is very good and the sea is calm. Don’t worry Mom, I’m sure that nothing bad is going to happen.

A list of rules for Ser

    Ser joins nouns

    No exceptions

Between two nouns or noun phrases we always use ser. It’s like an equal sign between nouns and it conveniently covers some smaller rules, e.g.: that ser is used when talking about relationships or someone’s profession:

Yo soy Manuel / Yo = Manuel (I am Manuel)
Ella es una mujer / Ella = mujer (She is a woman)
Clara es su ex-novia / Clara = su ex-novia (Clara is his ex-girlfriend)
Alejandro es profesor de biología / Alejandro = profesor de biología (Alejandro is a professor of biology)

Note that in Spanish the article is omitted before the name of the profession.

    Ser is used in Impersonal Expressions

    No exceptions

Ser should always be used in impersonal expressions, like:

  • es bueno / es maloit’s good / it’s bad
  • es posible / es imposibleit’s possible / it’s impossible
  • es fantásticoit’s fantastic
  • es terribleit’s terrible
  • es ridículoit’s ridiculous
  • es increíbleit’s incredible
  • es ciertoit’s certain
  • es evidenteit’s evident, it’s obvious
Es fantástico poder disfrutar de una vista tan maravillosa.
It’s fantastic to be able to enjoy such a wonderful view.

There are no exceptions, even if we are referring to this very moment:

En este momento es importante que estés atento a todo lo que pasa alrededor.
In this moment it is important that you are aware of everything that happens around.

Note how the impersonal expressions may be used in a sentence in two different ways:

  • With que + Subjuntivo
  • With an infinitive, which is easier and more common

    Ser is used for Numbers and Time Expressions

    No exceptions
Although time seems very impermanent, all the time-related expressions use the verb ser. They include:

  • Hours, minutes, seconds
  • Dates, days, months, years
  • Seasons
Hoy es el primero de abril y como es tradicional, hacemos chistes.
Today is the first of April and in line with tradition, we make jokes.
Un año son 525 600 minutos y en año bisiesto son 527 040 minutos.
A year is 525,600 minutes a leap year is 527,040 minutes.

Note that for values greater than one the plural form son is used:

Es la una y media / Son las tres y media
It is half past one / It is half past three

Also notice that the articles are always used before the hour – es la una, son las tres.

    Ser is used in Passive Voice

    No exceptions
Ser is used with a past participle to express the passive voice. The same sentence tranformed to the active voice will use estar and progressive tense. Additionally, when the past participle is used as an adjective, it describes a state after some action was performed. And for states we need to use estar:

Mi coche es reparado por el mecánico.
My car is being repaired by the mechanic.
Passive voice, ser plus past participle.
El mecánico está reparando mi coche.
The mechanic is repairing my car.
Active voice, estar plus gerund, Present Progressive tense.
Mi coche ahora está reparado.
My car is now repaired.
The mechanic has finished his job and the car is ready.
Past participle used as an adjective. We’re describing state so using estar.

    Ser is used to express Permanent Aspects

    Multiple exceptions
The most general and most often heard rule for ser is that it is used when describing permanent aspects of things and characteristics that normally do not change, as opposed to estar which is used for temporary aspects.

While this rule is true in many situations it is also very general. So it has multiple exceptions and is a frequent source of confusion. We described the case in more detail in the section of the counterpart rule for estar, so please check it if you haven’t yet. Here we would only like to remind you that you should avoid relying on this rule too much, as it may do more harm than good to your understanding of the ser vs estar topic.

Comix recap of Ser rules

Read the comix, identify all the rules used, which influenced the choice between ser and estar. Transcription with translations and explanations can be found below the comix.

ser story how to conjugate spanish verbs
- ¡Hola, Mamá! Tengo un amigo nuevo, es Osito.
- Hi, Mom! I have a new friend, it’s Osito
- ¡Hola, Osito! ¿De dónde eres?
- Hi, Osito! Where are you from?
- ¡Hola! Soy del bosque y soy leñador. ¿Sabe que nuestro bosque es el más grande en Europa?
- Hello! I’m from the forest and I’m a lumberjack. Do you know that our forest is the biggest in Europe?
- ¡Si, por supuesto Osito! Y también es el más bonito.
- Yes, of course Osito! And it’s also the most beautiful.
- ¿Osito puede quedarse para la comida?
- Can Osito stay for dinner?
- Creo que es demasiado grande para entrar por nuestra puerta. Además es muy tarde, son las 9 y es el domingo. ¿No tienes el reloj?
- I think he is too big to enter through our door. Additionally it’s very late, it’s 9 o’clock and it’s Sunday. Don’t you have the watch?
- No Mamá, lo perdí en el bosque.
- No Mom, I lost it in the forest.
- ¿El reloj que era de tu padre? Sabes que es de oro?
- The one which was your father’s? Do you know it’s golden?
- Cuanto era?
- How much was it?
- Era caro pero también era un recuerdo de Papá. ¡Es un desastre!
- It was expensive, but it was also a memento of Dad. It’s a disaster!
- ¡Así que es importante encontrarlo!
- So it’s important to find it!

Ser vs Estar – rules or logic?

The problem with rules for ser vs estar is that there are quite a few of them and that they have exceptions. And exceptions often lead to confusion.

For example there’s a rule that talking about location we use estar. But there’s also an exception that for the location of events we use ser. We could logically analyze it and say that an event cannot be located in the physical sense, because it has no physical form. It either exists or doesn’t exist (before and after it happens). So talking about an event we are talking about its existence or occurrence. We identify it unambiguously stating where and when it exists. And identification is the job of the verb ser.

But logical analysis is not ideal either. It’s not always easy and results may be ambiguous. That’s mainly because things we talk about every day have different natures. They may be physical entities, concepts, ideas, metaphors, figures of speech, analogies, symbols, etc. In some contexts we could come up with misinterpretation or multiple interpretations.

For instance even in a simple situation, where someone would like to ask where the bathroom is, the following questions may arise:

  • Should I think about location and use estar? (location rule)
  • Should I think about how permanent it is for the toilet to be in some part of the house and use ser? (permanent/temporary rules)
  • Should I use estar because logic implies that the location of the bathroom is not its characteristic, doesn’t identify it? It would still be the same bathroom if located on the ground floor. If the whole house was moved by a flood and landed safe somewhere down the river, we would still say that it is our house, just located in a different place.

The best approach would be to explore all we talked about so far and treat every tip as a different point of view which is good to understand. Focus on translating meaning, not words. You may find more ways to express a particular meaning than to directly translate a particular sentence.

A plan for improving on ser vs estar

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2 comments to Ser vs Estar – the Definitive Guide

  • Will

    This is a very large effort to explain a difficult subject.

    However, I think you need to concentrate on the past tense. WHY? Please note the present has one primary tense so we have ONLY 2 choices. BUT the past has two primary tenses so we do not have just 2 choices but 4 !!!. For example if the student wants to say ‘I was’ he or she is forced to choose between fui, era, estuve and estaba —-awwwwww my head hurts!!!

  • prof. Tom Tomatín & team

    Hey Will! That’s true, but still only up to some level. Then you also get choices like “estuve, estaba, he estado, estuviera or fui, era, he sido, fuera..” These are still used in simple, every day conversations.

    So another perspective for the case you describe is that in the past tense we have two separate issues:

    1. which verb to use: ser or estar?
    2. which tense to use: preterite or imperfect?

    Both have two choices each. It seems easier to first understand these separately, then practice separately in the present tense and finally practice doing both choices at the same time. Which indeed may make your head hurt :) Later on you will have to add more options to the pool, also the mood. It’s easier to make the choice in several smaller steps: which verb, which tense..

    However, that’s definitely a good idea for more articles in the series that would help grasp these various combinations as well. So thanks a lot for the feedback!

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