There are a few things that tend to trip up first time Spanish language learners, but perhaps the most prominent is the difference between ser and estar.
They both mean “to be,” but they’re used differently in Spanish. While this can seem really complex, difficult, and sometimes even insurmountable in the beginning, trust us — it’s not. You’ll get through it and we’re here to help! If we break down the different uses for ser and estar, you’ll see that learning when to use them is, in fact, not going to be the most difficult thing you’ve ever tried to do. Let’s take a look, starting with ser.
Let’s start with situations where the use is clean and clear.
ser is always used with:
1. Permanent traits like,
- colors: La casa es blanca.
- sizes: El carro es grande.
- professions: Soy profesora.
- times: Son las dos y media.
- dates: Es el 2 de mayo.
- nationalities: Es alemán.
- personalities: Pedro es simpático y guapo.
- materials: La blusa es de seda.
- permanent descriptions: Madrid es la capital de España.
2. The passive voice: La casa es construida por sus padres. (ser is the auxiliary verb in this instance.)
3. Emphatic descriptions: Es el domingo cuando vamos a viajar.
Good news! There are two clear cases when estar is always used:
1. When giving a location: Madrid está en España.
2. As the auxiliary verb when constructing a gerund: Estoy comiendo.
And there you have it! The two different use-cases for ser and estar. Now let’s take a look at how to start deciphering when to use one over the other.
How to know when to use them
Figuring out when to use ser and when to use estar in the not-so-clear-cut cases can get tricky for non-native Spanish speakers, especially those whose mother tongue doesn’t have two forms of “to be” (like English speakers). This usually happens the most when using ser and estar with adjectives (words that describe nouns) — changing the verb (not changing the adjective) when it comes to ser and estar is what changes the meaning of a sentence in Spanish. Take a look at some examples:
Pedro es listo means “Pedro is intelligent”.
Pedro está listo means “Pedro is ready”.
The trick is learning to tell the difference by interpreting the sentence with the knowledge of the verbs themselves — that estar is used to express temporal situations (therefore adjectives used with estar express time-based qualities like being ready), while ser is used to express permanent situations (therefore adjectives used with ser express permanent qualities, like being intelligent).
Like all things that have to do with learning another language, practicing is the best way to get the hang of it, which is why we’ve made an entire exercise dedicated to the difference between ser and estar — check it out here!
What have your adventures with learning the difference between ser and estar been like? What’s been tough? What’s been easy? Share with us in the comments below and, of course, drop us a line if you’re interested in more formal training in one of our classes!
Images via “Temas de Gramática, Nivel Superior.” Concha Moreno 2001.