Ser and estar: a classically challenging plight for Spanish learners. Conjugations can be difficult, and ser vs. estar is a particularly hard one. That is, the two verbs seem to overlap, but ~technically~ always have some—at least microscopic—difference. 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.
Fortunately, 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 distinctly challenging part of Spanish.
While Ser and Estar are both “to-be” verbs, they have different uses. Additionally, in English, we only have the one form of the verb, this tends to be one of the more confusing lessons 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
|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|
Acronyms for ser and estar
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.
Use DOCTOR and PLACE for ser and estar
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, we use estar to refer to temporary states and locations, while we use ser to talk about permanent characteristics. Since sometimes these rules feel vague, remembering acronyms can help 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:
PLACE refers to estar’s uses:
Ser: fixed conditions
Start by thinking of ser as the “what” and estar as the “how”. As such, ser takes permanent references, whereas estar discusses 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 take 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. Meanwhile, if you’re talking about someone’s exhaustion levels, this is a temporary condition.
The date is undoubtedly fixed, so this takes ser.
Example: Es el tercer de septiembre: It’s September third
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
This is one of the trickier ones, since characteristics cover both physical and personal traits.
Furthermore, 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. Moreover, they’re considered fixed when it comes to ser vs. estar.
Physical trait: Soy rubia: I am blond
Personality trait: Es simpático: He is nice
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 is a also one of the trickier cases. Obviously, you can change your profession. However, for the sake of ser and estar, you’ve got to just think about profession in the long-term sense. 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
Just like someone’s profession, a certain relationship can, of course, 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.
However, generally, your relationship to someone likely isn’t changing daily. For the time being, think of relationships as fixed conditions.
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 something (any condition, scenario, action, description) may be doubtful, temporary, or fleeting.
Position refers to an object’s physical position. This can apply to a person, an animal, or any given item.
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 any given moment, requires estar. Furthermore, something’s located (even if it’s been there for a while) takes estar.
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 is one of the more clear-cut uses for estar. An action, by definition, is “the fact or process of doing something”. Moreover, 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.
Mi papá está comiendo: My dad is eating
Mi perro está corriendo: My dog is running
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.
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.
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.
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.
Estoy triste hoy: I am sad today
Ella está enojada porque tiene un examen: She is angry because she has a test
Sometimes ser and estar are extra tricky
While there are usually distinct differences between ser and estar instances, sometimes it’s particularly tricky. In these cases, it’s usually challenging because both verbs 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.
Author: Lydia Schapiro