Ser and Estar in Spanish

Probably the two most important verbs in Spanish are Ser and Estar. They both mean ‘to be’ in English. You use these verbs whenever you want to say ‘am’, ‘are’ or ‘is’ in Spanish.

These two verbs are as follows in the present tense:

Ser = To be

soy = I am

eres = You are (talking to one friend/one child)

es = It/He/She is + You are (talking to one stranger)

somos = We are

sois = You are (talking to 2(+) friends/2(+) children)

son = They are + You are (talking to 2(+) strangers)

Estar = to be

estoy = I am

estás = You are (talking to one friend/one child)

está = It/He/She is + You are (talking to one stranger)

estamos = We are

estáis = You are (talking to 2(+) friends/2(+) children)

están = They are + You are (talking to 2(+) strangers)

Although the meaning of both look the same in English, they are both used in different circumstances in Spanish.

It is important to know which verb to use in which context. Many resources deal with ser and estar in a very convoluted way. Here my aim is to try to deal with this topic effectively and quickly.

The verb estar

In general we use the verb ‘estar’ in two situations:

  • To describe status (states of being); and

  • To describe location

In other situations we usually use ‘ser’.

Status/State of Being

If we can insert the words “in the state of being” in a sentence (after the words “am”, “are” or “is”) we must use the verb ‘estar’. This tells us that it is a sentence describing status. See the following examples:

  • Está enfermo. = He is ill.
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “He is in the state of being ill”.
  • Estámos casados. = We are married.
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “We are in the state of being married”.
  • Están borrachos/as. = They are drunk.
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “They are in the state of being drunk”.
  • ¿Estás cansado/a? = Are you tired? (asking one friend) (literally: You are tired?)
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “You are in the state of being tired?”
  • Está muerto. = He is dead.
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “He is in the state of being dead”.
  • Está malhumorado. = He is grumpy.
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “He is in the state of being grumpy”.

Status may seem a little bit strange at first, but if you can insert the words “in the state of being” (after the words “am”, “are” or “is”) it is a sentence describing status/state in being. You must therefore use the verb ‘estar’ in your sentence.

The above guidance will work for most situations. However, be aware that sometimes the use of ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ can be confusing. On rare occasions one person may use ser, whereas another person may use estar.

One example of some people using ‘ser’ and others ‘estar’ is when describing the quality of a meal being eaten. Some people may say:

  • Está delicioso. = It is delicious.
    • The use of ‘estar’ here shows that the meal is in the state of being delicious. This has the sense that the food is in a good state. In other words, in a week’s time the food itself would not be fresh, so would not be delicious, etc.

Having said that other people might alternatively use ‘ser’ in this situation, namely:

  • Es delicioso. = It is delicious.
    • By using ‘ser’ here, the person is expressing that the meal is a delicious one (i.e. one of its characteristics is that it is delicious).

The above example may be confusing at first, but the good thing is when describing a meal they are eating both ser and estar are good. Do not panic though, as in the majority of situations there is a clear cut and logical ‘state of being’.

Often states are temporary (e.g. pregnant, drunk, tired, etc.), but some are not (e.g. dead, alive).

If in doubt, look up the describing word you wish to use in a dictionary. Good dictionaries will often have examples of usage. The examples may help you to decide whether to use ser or estar.

Location

The second situation where you must use ‘estar’ is when describing location. Essentially if you can insert the word “located” (after the word “am”, “are” or “is”), it is a sentence describing location. See the following examples:

  • Estamos en Madrid. = We are in Madrid.
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “We are located in Madrid”).
  • ¿Dónde está el museo?= Where is the museum? (literally: Where it is the museum?)
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “Where is it located the museum?”.
  • Tom está en casa. = Tom is at home. (literally: Tom he is in house/home).
    • We use ‘estar’ here, because we can say “Tom is located at home”.

Note: Ser can sometimes be used to describe where something is taking place, for example ‘La fiesta es en Madrid’ = ‘The party is taking place in Madrid’ (literally: ‘The party is in Madrid’), but this usage is not being discussed here further.

The verb ‘ser’

Ser by contrast is used in all other situations i.e. situations where we cannot say “located” or “in the state of being” (after the word “am”, “are” or “is”) in the sentence. See the following examples:

  • Es inglés. = He is English.
    • We cannot say “He is in the state of being English” or “He is located English”. We therefore cannot use the verb ‘estar’, so must use ‘ser’.

  • Mis ojos son azules. = My eyes are blue. (literally: My eyes they are blue).
    • We cannot say “My eyes are in the state of being blue” or “My eyes are located blue”. We therefore cannot use the verb ‘estar’, so must use ‘ser’.
  • Soy Sophie. = I am Sophie.
    • We cannot say “I am in the state of being Sophie” or “I am located Sophie”. We therefore cannot use the verb ‘estar’, so must use ‘ser’.
  • Es profesor. = He is a teacher. (literally: He is teacher)
    • We cannot say “He is in the state of being a teacher” or “He is located a teacher”. We therefore cannot use the verb ‘estar’, so must use ‘ser’.
    • On an unrelated note with professions you normally drop the word a/an i.e. un/una in Spanish, so you literally say ‘He is teacher’, rather than ‘He is a teacher’.
  • Somos de Inglaterra. = We are from England.
    • We cannot say “We are in the state of being from England” or “We are located from England”. We therefore cannot use the verb ‘estar’, so must use ‘ser’.
    • This sentence is an example describing origin. Origin is not location and therefore we must use ‘ser’. In the example above we have no idea from the statement where the people are. The people could be anywhere in the world. The statement only tells us where the people are from, rather than where they are (i.e. located) now.
 

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Hopefully this post has helped you to understand whether you use ‘ser’ or ‘estar’ when you want to say ‘am’, ‘are’ or ‘is’ in Spanish.

Regardless of the above, the different uses of ser and estar should not be overthought too much. Experience reading and listening to the language will help you to identify which types of sentences use which verb.

A good dictionary may also help you by providing you with examples of usage. It may tell you whether to use ser or estar with the adjective you have chosen.

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