Ser vs Estar vs Tener: All the Ways to Say “I am” in Spanish
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?
Spanish Verb Ser
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:
Using Ser — Ser + adjective
|El gato es lindo.||The cat is cute.|
|La casa es grande.||The house is big.|
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*:
Using Ser — subject + adjective
|El gato lindo.||The cute cat.|
|La casa grande.||The big house.|
*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.
Spanish Verb Estar
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:
Using Estar – Condition
|estar + adjective||Yo estoy bueno.||I am in good health.|
|estar + adverb||Yo estoy bien.||I am (doing) well.|
|estar + gerund*||Yo estoy leyendo.||I am reading|
*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.).
Using Estar – Place
|estar + en + article* + place||Yo estoy en una fiesta.||I’m at a party|
*It’s important to remember that in Spanish we use articles a lot more than we do in English, so always remember to add it here, even when you wouldn’t in English!
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Ser vs Estar
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:
|Yo||Soy||Yo soy linda. (I am cute.)|
|Tú||Eres||Tú eres feliz. (You are happy.)|
|Usted||Es||Usted es muy trabajador. (You are very hardworking.)|
|Él, Ella||Es||Ella es bailarina. (She is a dancer.)|
|Nosotros||Somos||Nosotros somos pescadores. (We are fishermen.)|
|Ustedes||Son||Ustedes son hermanas. (You are sisters.)|
|Ellos/Ellas||Son||Ellos son muy unidos. (They are very close.)|
|Yo||Soy||Yo estoy bien (I am doing well.)|
|Tú||Eres||Tú estás muy feliz hoy. (You are very happy today.)|
|Usted||Es||Usted está trabajando. (You are working.)|
|Él, Ella||Es||Ella está bailando. (She is dancing.)|
|Nosotros||Somos||Nosotros estamos en altamar. (We are in high seas.)|
|Ustedes||Son||Ustedes están con sus padres. (You are with your parents.)|
|Ellos/Ellas||Son||Ellos están peleados. (They are mad at each other.)|
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:
|Yo tengo hambre.||I have hunger.||I am hungry. (I feel hunger.)|
|Tú tienes miedo.||You have fear.||You are fearful. (You feel fear.)|
|Ellos tienen sed.||They have thirst.||They are thirsty. (They feel thirst.)|
Tener is like estar and ser; it is an irregular verb. You need to keep that in mind when building sentences with it:
|Yo||Tengo||Yo tengo hambre. (I am hungry.)|
|Tú||Tienes||Tú tienes sueño. (You are sleepy.)|
|Usted||Tiene||Usted tiene 37 años. (You are 36 years old.)|
|Él/Ella||Tiene||Ella tiene sed. (She is thirsty.)|
|Nosotros||Tenemos||Nosotros tenemos frío. (We are cold.)|
|Ustedes||Tienen||Ustedes tienen calor. (You are hot.)|
|Ellos/Ellas||Tienen||Ellos tienen miedo. (They are scared.)|
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 these:
Ser vs estar vs tener
- 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.
Master Ser vs Estar vs Tener in Spanish!
I know this is a lot to take in, and the best way to learn the differences among ser, estar, and tener 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!
Would you like more lessons on Spanish grammar? Check these out!
- Master the Various Uses of ‘Ya’ in Spanish
- Master the Subjunctive in Spanish
- Suceder, Pasar, and Ocurrir: Spanish Verbs Meaning “to Happen”
- A Simple Guide to Spanish Sentence Structure and Order
- Learn to Use Voseo: Vos in Spanish
- How to Write and Pronounce Spanish Accent Marks
- Master the Spanish Alphabet: Letters, Sounds, and Songs for Everyone
- How to Use the Verb ‘Soler’ in Spanish