I am—ser, estar, tener
In English, whenever you are happy, at home, or cold, you use the verb to be (am, are, is) to refer to all three things. However, in Spanish, we say estoy feliz (or in some cases soy feliz), estoy en la casa, and tengo frío! Three different verbs are equivalent to the English verb “to be.” Today, we will discuss when it is most appropriate to use each verb! If you’d like to learn more about how to express your feelings in Spanish, go have a look at our blog post on feelings.
Ser vs. Estar
Although they express something similar (the characteristics of a person or thing), estar and ser convey distinct ideas. Pointing out this difference to an English speaker, or a speaker of any language that doesn’t differentiate between these ideas, is a little complicated. Since we use only one word to refer to both concepts, you’ll have to create an approach in your mind and learn how it works. And don’t worry, the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it. In fact, why don’t you download this awesome practice PDF to improve your skills on your own time?
Ser expresses the attributes of a person or thing. When you use ser, you’re talking about characteristics that are a part of the essence of a person or thing: something unchangeable.
Since ser helps us express the characteristics of a person or thing, what comes after the verb is an adjective! The structure for these sentences is ser + adjective:
Another way you can remember when to use the verb ser is to completely get rid of the verb and see how the adjective matches your noun. Adding the verb ser turns this phrase into a sentence*:
*Sentences are grammatical units that include a subject (a person or thing) and a predicate (which includes a verb and whatever follows) and help us express a complete idea. Conversely, phrases are a set of words that form part of a sentence or clause.
Think of estar as a status or condition. Estar expresses how a person or thing exists, finds itself in a place or situation, how it feels, or how it remains with stability in a place, situation or condition.
As you can see, estar refers to something that can change and that doesn’t belong to the nature of the person or thing.
Estar can help you say how you’re feeling, express a place that you’re at, or something that you’re currently doing. When forming sentences with estar, you want to use the following structures:
*Gerund: in Spanish, the gerund (verb with -ando and -iendo endings) helps us describe a continuous action that started taking place before we mentioned it and is still taking place as we talk about it. The equivalent of this in English is the present continuous tense that we form with the verb to be + verb + ing (I am running, she is laughing, etc.).
Ser vs Estar Examples
Conjugation of Ser and Estar
Now that you know when you should use each verb, let’s have a look at the conjugation since they are both irregular verbs. As you will see, estar only varies on the first person singular while the rest of its conjugation is regular:
Tener means to have, to own, or to possess. This verb may be a little easier to understand because it is a verb that exists in English. We can use tener to express something that we physically possess or a way we feel at a certain point in time—that is, a feeling or a need we “have.”
As we learned in our blog post about expressing the way we feel, we can use tener (to have) to express needs or emotions at a specific point in time.
The construction for this is tener + a noun. Let’s have a look at some examples and what a literal translation would look like:
Tener is like estar and ser; it is an irregular verb. You need to keep that in mind when building sentences with it:
Like we reviewed in our common mistakes blog post, you need to keep in mind certain things to improve your Spanish. When you want to express the way you feel, remember this list:
- Tengo calor: while in English you say “I’m hot,” in Spanish you say “I have heat” (I experience heat). Saying estoy caliente or soy caliente means that you are aroused by something, so you really want to avoid making this common mistake and having people look at you funny.
- Tengo frío: in Spanish, we say that we “have cold” (we experience cold). To properly say that you’re cold, you need to say tengo frío. To say estoy frío or soy frío me means that you’re a cold person—a person who doesn’t show their feelings.
- Estoy mal vs. soy malo
- Estoy mal: since we’re using the verb estar, we’re referring to a condition that is not a part of the character of a person. In this case, estoy mal means that you feel physically sick or that you’re upset about something.
- Soy malo: ser expresses qualities about a person or thing that are part of them and therefore unchangeable. If we say soy malo, we’re saying that we’re a bad person, not that we’re feeling unwell. Another thing to keep in mind here is that if you want to say that you’re “bad at something” like I am at playing soccer, you say soy malo para el fútbol. We use ser in this case because not being able to play soccer well is a part of me that’s not going to change.
- Estoy bien vs. soy bueno: estoy bien and soy bueno work the same way as estoy mal and soy malo.
- Estoy bien: we’re using estar so we refer to a condition that we’re currently at. When you say estoy bien, it can either been that you’re physically or psychologically fine.
- Soy bueno: since we’re using ser, we’re talking about a part of our character. We’re saying that we’re a good person. Like with soy malo, if we want to say that we’re good at something—at something being the keyword here—we say soy bueno para jugar ajedrez (I’m good at playing chess). This means that being good at playing chess is a part of our skills.
I know this is a lot to take in, and the best way to learn all this is by practicing and practicing! There’s no time like the present—jump into a FREE class with us so that you can practice with one of our certified teachers! Or, continue practicing with our handy-dandy PDF!