To be or not to be - that is the question

Well, in fact, in Spanish this is a very important question to ask when using the verbs ser and estar, both of which mean to be! But how can there be two verbs which mean the same thing you might be wondering? It all has to do with the specific idea you want to transmit to the person you’re speaking to, and also there are certain set expressions (frases hechas) which need either ser or estar.
In general terms, we can say that:

  • Ser is used for things which are more permanent or definite
  • Estar is used for states or more temporary conditions

This is only a very basic guideline to follow as we will show you some examples and you’ll see that there are some cases where something you might expect to use ser actually takes estar or vice versa. When learning Spanish it’s always best to look at lots of examples (ejemplos) to help you better understand. Also, always remember that when practising your speaking and writing that you’re going to make mistakes and that this doesn’t matter as it’s the only way to improve (mejorar).

Let's start with ser

Here are a number of situations in which you’ll need to use this verb.

Reason Spanish examples English translation
For personal characteristics and traits Juan es una persona muy inteligente Juan is a very clever person
For characteristics of objects and places Madrid es la capital de España. Es una ciudad grande Madrid is the capital of Spain. It is a big city
Talking about jobs Soy profesora de inglés I am an English teacher
To show belonging Ese boli es de Paula That is Paula’s pen
To show origin Son de Australia They are from Australia
For date and times Son las cinco de la tarde. Hoy es el 25 de julio It is 5pm. Today is the 25th July
In passive structures Fue construido en 1999 It was built in 1999
For mathematical calculations Tres por tres son nueve Three times three is nine
When the next verb is in the infinitive Lo que hace falta es llamar a la policía What we need to do is call the police

Can you see how that works? All of those things are much more permanent in nature and it’s very difficult to change them. For instance, if you have blue eyes today, you’ll probably have blue eyes for the rest of your life and so you use ser to describe them.

Now let's take a closer look at estar

Reason Spanish examples English translation
For location of people and places Estoy en el supermercado. Bilbao está en el norte de España I am in the supermarket. Bilbao is in the north of Spain
With adjectives to make descriptions of people/things and their state at the moment El metro está lleno de gente ahora mismo. El proyecto todavía no está terminado. Perdona, pero la pizza está fría The metro is full of people right now. The project still isn’t finished. Excuse me but this pizza is cold
To make the continuous tenses Estoy viendo la tele. Estaban jugando en el patio I am watching the TV. They were playing in the playground
For matters related with health (including death!) Pablo está enfermo. Javier está muerto Pablo is sick. Javier is dead (Yes, I know this seems strange but it’s the rule!)

Apart from these rules (reglas), both ser and estar are used in some set expressions as I mentioned earlier. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Expressions with ser
    • Ser la oveja negra – To be the black sheep
    • Ser de provecho – To be of benefit/to be good for
    • Ser una rata – To be tight-fisted
  • Expressions with estar
    • Estar hecho polvo – To be exhausted
    • Estar como una cabra – To be crazy
    • Estar hasta las narices – To be fed up

So there you have it! A quick guide to these two incredibly important verbs. If you want to speak fluent Spanish you’ll definitely need to work on being able to use both ser and estar correctly. You should try to practise speaking and writing Spanish as much as possible to make sure you learn the differences. Also, reading and listening to as much as possible in Spanish when learning the language will help you really understand.

Of course, the best way to improve is to come and take a course with us here at Hablamos. With both online and face-to-face classes, you can take advantage of (sacar provecho de) our expertise whenever and wherever suits you. Hablamos - full-on Spanish!