Estar and Ser: Funny Mistakes and How to Use the Verbs the Right Way!
How to correctly use estar and ser is the cause of countless headaches among new learners of the Spanish language. But it shouldn’t be like that, once you understand how it works, estar and ser are just like any other Spanish verb.
“To Be” a Straightforward Verb
The power of the verb “to be” is that it expresses who you are, how you feel, what you do for a living, and many other important things. For example: “I’m an engineer.”
In English, the use of this fundamental verb is pretty straightforward. It has a well-defined structure (subject + conjugated form of the verb “to be” + complement) which serves to express a lot of different situations. You can “be” in Mexico, but you can also “be” an architect. There is not much room for confusion and no other verb that we could use to express these ideas.
However, as you may have heard by now, Spanish complicates the matter by using two distinct verbs for what is “to be” in English.
To Be or Not to Be? Ser vs Estar
Herein lies the source of all the confusion regarding the verb “to be” in Spanish: we use two different verbs to express what in English is expressed with only one (Spanish uses three verbs actually, but let’s not overcomplicate the lesson).
“To be” equally translates as estar and as ser in Spanish. The logic behind this is that they express two different things: estar expresses being in a place or state, while ser expresses being something or someone. You might be surprised to know that for Spanish speakers, it’s quite weird that English doesn’t differentiate between these two verbs. Simpler for sure, but still weird.
Why Does Spanish Use Two Verbs?
Think about the many things you can say with the verb “to be”: you are an American, a teacher, you are cool, depressed, in a hurry, hungry, etc. How can a single verb express all those different states of being?
In English, the verb “to be” follows the “one size fits all” policy. While in Spanish, the language gets a bit more specific.
Temporary States vs Permanent States
The easiest way to explain the difference between estar and ser is that we use estar for temporary states and ser for permanent states.
We use estar when talking about HOW something is. This includes emotions, locations, actions, and conditions, which are all temporary states.
Estoy triste. – I am sad.
You might be happy a few minutes later. Your sadness is only temporary.
Carlos está en la escuela. – Carlos is at school.
Carlos for sure will leave the school at some point during the day. His location at the school is only temporary.
On the other hand, when we talk about WHAT something is we use ser. To express an inherent quality or essential part of something. A permanent state.
Yo soy Carlos. – I am Carlos.
That’s who he is. It won’t change with time. He will always be Carlos. Being Carlos is an essential part of him. It’s permanent.
John es americano. – John is American.
Barring an uncommon change of nationality, John will always be American. Being American is an inherent quality of him, a permanent characteristic.
Estar and Ser Conjugations
Let’s take a look at the indicative present tense conjugations of estar and ser, and then go straight to some of the most common uses (and mistakes).
When to Use Estar
Remember that the key for estar is looking for a temporary state. Always use estar in the following 5 areas:
1. Ongoing Actions
We use estar when talking about ongoing actions. Usually, after the verb estar comes another verb in the form of a gerund. Verbs in gerund always end in -ando or -iendo.
Estoy comiendo lo más rápido que puedo.
I’m eating as fast as I can.
Está ganando el Barcelona.
Barcelona is winning.
As explained before, emotions and moods are temporary states. You might be sad now, but probably will be happy tomorrow.
Estoy enojado contigo.
I’m mad at you.
Funny Mistake Alert!
It’s very important that you use the correct verb here.
If you are bored, you say: estoy aburrido.
If, by mistake, you use ser in this situation, you’ll be saying: soy aburrido.
That means that you are boring!
To express where something is located, you have to use estar:
España está en Europa.
Spain is in Europe.
Mi oficina está en el quinto piso.
My office is on the fifth floor.
For some reason (weird things languages have), when we talk about the location of an event such as a party, a concert, or a match, we use ser:
El partido es en Madrid.
The match is in Madrid.
La fiesta de María es en el parque.
Maria’s party is in the park.
When talking about your posture or physical position (or that of someone else), you have to use estar:
Estoy sentado en la barra.
I’m sitting at the bar.
Miguel está acostado en su cama.
Miguel is lying in his bed.
We use estar when talking about physical and mental conditions. These conditions may change after a few hours or days.
Isabel está enferma.
Isabel is sick.
When to Use Ser
As said before, we use ser to talk about permanent states, inherent qualities, or the essential part of something or someone. We use ser in the following situations:
It can be physical descriptions and personality traits, or simple descriptions of objects.
Jorge es delgado.
Jorge is thin.
La casa es azul.
The house is blue.
When talking about the time on the clock, days, years, and dates, you have to use ser:
Son las dos en punto.
It’s two o’clock.
Hoy es domingo.
Today is Sunday.
To express where a person or thing is originally from, we use ser. We can also use it to express the material something is made of:
Mi padre es de Argentina.
My father is from Argentina.
La casa es de ladrillo.
The house is made of bricks.
We use ser when talking about our job, profession, or occupation:
Mi tío es abogado.
My uncle is a lawyer.
I’m a painter.
If you are talking about things that belong to you or someone else, you’ll use ser:
Ese teléfono es mío.
That phone is mine.
Esta es su casa.
This is his house.
Let’s see some of the most common funny mistakes that can happen if you don’t completely master the uses of estar and ser:
If you are running late and can’t stop to talk with someone, make sure to use estar:
Disculpa, estoy retrasado.
Sorry, I’m late.
If you don’t remember this simple case, people may laugh at you:
Disculpa, soy retrasado.
Sorry, I’m retarded.
If you want to say that you are a good person, you should use ser. Otherwise, it can get a bit comical:
This is one of those weird cases without a satisfactory explanation. But for some reason, being dead in Spanish works as a temporary state and you should use estar in these cases:
El abuelo está muerto.
Grandpa is dead.
Saying “El abuelo es muerto” has no actual meaning, it’s just grammatically incorrect (I know, this wasn’t funny!).
Practice the Differences
Estar and ser are two of the most used verbs in Spanish, so it’s vital that you get a full understanding of how and when to use them. Book a free class with us to master the intricacies of these all-important verbs!
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