“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.
Because they are both irregular, conjugating these verbs will require memorization. Estar, however, is only irregular for first person singular.
Ser is used for attributes and things that do not change (with the exception of location and time). Remember the acronym DOCTOR for ser.
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
Use ser to talk about someone’s profession.
a. Ambos hermanos son doctores – Both brothers are doctors
b. Son abogadas – They are lawyers
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
Now that you know some of the differences, see how well you do with these exercises.
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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Irma is a trained linguist, native Spanish speaker, and teacher. She is the founder and CEO of Diáfano.
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