Ser and estar: a classically challenging plight for Spanish learners. Conjugations can be difficult, and ser vs. estar is a particularly hard one. The two verbs seem to overlap, but ~technically~ always have differences. In my experience, it can be frustrating to feel as though you’ve got it mastered, but then to continually find yourself writing the wrong verb on exams and worksheets.

There are some tricks—in addition to memorization—you can use to drill these differences into your brain. 

Why are Ser and Estar confusing?

Mastering a foreign language is difficult in itself, but grasping ser and estar  is a particularly challenging part of Spanish. 

While Ser and Estar are both to-be verbs, they have different uses. Since this is not the case in English, this tends to be one of the more confusing lessons for lots of students. 

Using the wrong verb can cause lots of confusion (particularly with ser vs. estar), so It’s important to nail this. 

Ser and Estar: Present-tense conjugations

Ser Estar
Yo: soy Yo: estoy
Tú: eres Tú: estás
Él/Ella/Usted: es Él/Ella/Usted: está
Nosotros: somos Nosotros: estamos
Vosotros: sois  Vosotros: estáis
Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes: son Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes: están

Ser and Estar acronyms

Acronyms are very helpful for memorizing the ser and estar uses. Personally, I remember scrambling to write out my acronyms at the top of every Spanish test to ensure I would have it to look back on.  

DOCTOR vs. PLACE

You can use the acronyms DOCTOR and PLACE to help you remember ser vs. estar, particularly for more specific cases when you’re not sure which verb to use. 

In general, estar is used to refer to temporary states and locations, while ser talks about permanent characteristics. Since sometimes these rules feel too vague, remembering acronyms can help you determine the correct verb. This rule (temporary vs. permanent) can’t always entirely apply, but the acronyms can pretty much always provide you with your answer.

DOCTOR refers to ser’s uses:

D: Date

O: Occupation

C: Characteristics

T: Time

O: Origin

R: Relation

PLACE refers to estar’s uses:

P: Position

L: Location

A: Action

C: Condition

E: Emotions

Ser: Fixed Conditions

Start by thinking of ser as the “what” and estar as the “how”. That is, ser takes permanent references, whereas estar is used to discuss temporary states or conditions. For instance, what I am is a writer. How I feel is exhausted. The what, and the how; the first sentence would use ser, and the second would take estar.

One way to determine if a condition is fixed is by simply asking yourself, does it change? For instance, if you’re talking about someone’s hair or eye color, this is considered permanent. While if you’re talking about someone’s exhaustion levels, this is a temporary condition.

Date: Ser

The date is undoubtedly fixed, so this takes ser.

Example: Es el tercer de septiembre: It’s September third

Origin: Ser

Someone’s origin is also something that will never change, because it’s not an ongoing occurrence—it’s a singular place. 

Example: Mi abuela es de Chicago: My Grandma is from chicago

Characteristics: Ser

This is one of the trickier ones, since characteristics cover both physical and personal traits. 

Plus, it can get confusing if you think too hard about it since, in reality, these things can at some point change. 

While these aspects may change—due to aging or purposeful alterations—they’re likely not changing on a day-to-day basis. And they are considered fixed when it comes to ser vs. estar. 

Examples:

Physical trait: Soy rubia: I am blond

Personality trait: Es simpático: He is nice 

Time: Ser

We’re back with an easy one! Time is a fixed, permanent condition. And so it’ll take ser.

Example: Es dos de la mañana: It is two in the morning

Occupation: Ser

Occupation is a little trickier. Obviously, you can change your profession. But, for the sake of ser and estar, we’ve got to just think about it in the short-term. It’s not likely that one day you’re a doctor, the next, a teacher, and the next a circus clown. So occupation takes ser. 

Example: Ella es médica, y él es abogado: She is a doctor, and he is a lawyer 

Relation: Ser

Just like someone’s profession, a certain relationship can change. For non-family relationships, this can become confusing. You can stop being friends with someone, or you can become romantic partners after being friends. 

But in general, your relationship to someone likely isn’t changing daily. For the time being, let’s think of it as fixed.

Examples:

Él es su novio: He is her boyfriend

Ella es mi máma: She is my mother

Ellas son mis jefes: They are my bosses 

Estar: Temporary conditions

We use estar when it’s not known that something (any condition, scenario, action, description) is doubtful, temporary, or fleeting. 

Position: Estar

Position refers to the physical position. This can apply to both a person and a thing. 

Examples: 

Mi amiga está sentada: My friend is seated

Mi gato está acostada: My dog is lying down 

In most cases, the position is not a permanent situation. 

Location (of people or objects): Estar

Talking about something/someone’s location, during one moment, requires estar. Where something is located (even if it’s been there for a while) takes estar.

Examples:

El maestro está en el baño: The teacher is in the bathroom

Mi mochila está en mi cuarto: My backpack is in my room

Action: Estar

Action is one of the more clear-cut uses for estar. An action, by definition, is “the fact or process of doing something”. And a process is ongoing, and thus, temporary. 

Note: In the majority of these cases, you’ll need to use a present participle. This is the verb that forms what you think of as -ing verbs in English: running, playing, talking, etc.

Examples:

Mi papá está comiendo: My dad is eating

Mi perro está corriendo: My dog is running

Conditions: Estar

Estar is used to express feelings or temporary physical condition. A condition can be an emotion, a temporary physical state, or a temporary mental state, among others.

We use estar to express feelings or temporary conditions. This may refer to an emotion (although we’ll cover that one more explicitly below), a temporary physical state, or a temporary ,mental stat.

Examples:

Mi mamá está loca hoy: My mom is crazy today

Nosotros estamos cansados esta mañana: We are tired this morning

Note: In the above scenarios, we’re discussing temporary conditions.

Emotions: Estar

Although sometimes it seems like emotions are forever, you’d be wrong. Emotions, like visiting guests, are fleeting. Emotions are not your permanent condition, and so they take estar.  

Examples:

Estoy triste: I am sad

Ella está enojada: She is angry   

Note: Sometimes context will get in the way of these rules. Someone may be trying to say “she is an angry person”, which can be confusing. Because of this, people may compensate their sentence with something that makes it more clear. 

Examples:

Estoy triste hoy: I am sad today

Ella está enojada porque tiene un examen: She is angry because she has a test

Sometimes it’s extra tricky

While there are usually distinct differences between ser and estar usages, sometimes it’s particularly tricky. In these cases, it’s usually challenging because both ser and estar seem to work.

 For instance, if you were to say “This food is delicious,” depending on context, both ser and estar work. In one scenario (ser), you’re implying that the food is inherently good, while in the other (estar), you’re saying that the food tastes good right now.  

Similarly, if you were to describe someone as being attractive, both ser and estar could potentially be correct. You may mean to say that this person is generally attractive, or you may be trying to say that they look pretty right now.

Generally, estar is used for the temporary, while ser is used for fixed. Clearly, though, context matters—but this is simply the case for language. 

 

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