To Be or Not to Be in Spanish: The Uses of Ser and Estar

Feeling particularly upset? Emotions are usually expressed with "estar."

“To be, or not to be–that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And by opposing end them…”

 Hamlet must have been thinking in Spanish when he pronounced his most famous soliloquy, for there seems to be nothing more confusing to Spanish learners than the use of ser and estar. These verbs are both the equivalent of the English “to be,” and will be the foundation to one too many of your conversations in Spanish.  If you really want to learn Spanish, you need to understand ser and estar. Particularly towards the beginning of your language journey, understanding the differences between ser and estar can be tricky, but let me make it simple. 

Conjugating ser and estar

Because they are both irregular, conjugating these verbs will require memorization. Estar, however, is only irregular for first person singular.

Ser

Yo soy

Tú eres

Él/ella/usted es

Nosotros/as somos

Vosotros/as sois

Ellos/ellas/ustedes son

Estar

Yo estoy

Tú estás

Él/ella/usted está

Nosotros/as estamos

Vosotros/as estáis

Ellos/ellas/ustedes están

Uses of ser

Ser is used for attributes and things that do not change (with the exception of location and time). Remember the acronym DOCTOR for ser.

D ESCRIPTIONS O CCUPATION C HARACTERISTICS T IME O RIGIN R ELATIONSHIPS

- Descriptions.

When referring to a person’s name, physical attributes or even religion, use ser.

a. Su nombre es Mario – His name is Mario

b. Ella es un mujer muy alta – She is a very tall woman

Occupation

Use ser to talk about someone’s profession.

a. Ambos hermanos son doctores – Both brothers are doctors

b. Son abogadas – They are lawyers

Characteristics

When referring to someone’s character, use ser.

a. Soy inteligente y astuta – I’m intelligent and astute 😉

b. Es una persona sumamente interesante – He is a very interesting person

Time

Use ser for anything related to time.

a. Era la década de los 80 – It was the 80s

b. Hoy es lunes, 24 de abril – Today is Monday, April 24th

c. Son las tres y media – It is three thirty

Origin

Nationality and origin, whether it is the origin of a person or an object.

a. Juan Luis Guerra es un cantante dominicano – Juan Luis Guerra is a Dominican singer

b. Estas esmeraldas son de Colombia – These emeralds are from Colombia

Relationships

When describing the relationship between two people, use ser.

a. Este es mi novio – This is my boyfriend

b. Ella es mi hermana – She is my sister

Estar

I always tell my students and clients the following: estar is motion and emotion. Everything related to states of mind, physical states, conditions, and place are estar. For estar, the acronym PLACE is used.

P OSITION L OCATION A CTIONS C ONDITIONS E MOTIONS

Position

Estar describes the physical position of an object or person.

a. El libro está en la mesa – The book is on the table

b. El niño está sentado – The boy is seated  

Location

When referring to geography, use estar.

a. Nueva York está en la parte al noreste de los Estados Unidos – New York is in the northeastern part of the United States

b. Puerto Rico está en el Caribe – Puerto Rico is in the Caribbean

*Note that when speaking of where an event takes place, ser is used, not estar.

 a. La reunión es en la sala de conferencia – The meeting is in the conference room

b. La ópera es en Lincoln Center – The opera is at Lincoln Center

Actions

When speaking of actions, estar is used, usually followed by the gerund.

a. Estoy trabajando mucho este mes – I am working a lot this month

b. Cuando estábamos estudiando llamó mi hermano – When we were studying my brother called

Conditions

Physical and mental states are described with estar.

a. Estás muy nervioso. Cálmate – You are very nervous. Calm down

b. Estamos muy cansados. La clase de yoga nos dejó muertos – We are very tired.

Yoga class killed us

Emotions

How are you feeling today? Whether happy, sad, emotional, these are all covered by estar.

a. ¿Cómo estás? Estoy bien, gracias – How are you? I’m well, thank you.

b. Está muy triste porque su novia lo dejó – He is very sad because his girlfriend left him

*Another way to remember estar is LoCo = location and condition.

Exercises with ser y estar

Now that you know some of the differences, see how well you do with these exercises.

  1. Mis padres __________ de vacaciones en Curaçao – My parents are on vacation in Curaçao.
  2. Fue una boda maravillosa. La luna de miel __________ en Dubai – It was a lovely wedding. The honeymoon is in Dubai.
  3. Tu esposa __________ muy agradable – Your wife is very pleasant.
  4. Tu esposa __________ muy enamorada de ti – Your wife is very much in love with you.
  5. Los estudiantes __________ felices porque aprobaron – The students are happy because they passed.
  6. ¿Ustedes __________ venezolanos, pero viven en California? – You are from Venezuela, but live in California?
  7. ¿De dónde __________ este chocolate? ¿Es suizo? – Where is this chocolate from? Is it Swiss?
  8. ¿Por qué el jefe siempre __________ tan enojado? – Why is the boss always so upset?
  9. ¿Esa __________ tu amiga? – Is that your friend?
  10. ¡No __________ nada aburrido! – I’m not the least bit boring! 🙁

 Answers: 1. están; 2. es; 3. es; 4. está; 5. están; 6. son; 7. es; 8. está; 9. es; 10. soy

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