Ser and Estar
"To be or not to be, that is the question!"

The differences between ser (to be) and estar (to be) present the Anglophone or Francophone learner of Spanish with some of the more difficult moments of the language apprenticeship. FAQs include:

"Couldn't we just choose one of them and use it all the time?"
"Why do the Spanish have to have two different ways of saying to be?"
"Do we really have to learn the difference between them?"
"Will I ever really understand all this?"

The answers to these four FAQs are as follows: no, because, yes, and eventually!

Conjugation of ser and estar in the present tense:

  Ser Estar
yo soy estoy
eres estás
él, ella, Ud., usted es está
nosotros, nosotras somos estamos
vosotros, vosotras sois estáis
ellos, ellas, Uds., ustedes son están

Note the accents on estar -- and yes, remember them, please, they are important!

Uses of ser and estar

1. SER is used with de to show where things come from or from what they are made:

Yo soy de Saint John, NB. / I am from Saint John, NB.

Mi reloj es de plata. / My watch is (made from) silver.

2. SER is used to show what the subject of the verb is or does:

Mi amigo es estudiante. / My friend is a student.

Mi perro es muy grande y muy bonito. / My dog is very large and very handsome.

3. SER is always used with time:

Es la una. / It is one o'clock.

Son las tres y media. It is three thirty.

4. SER is used in impersonal expressions:

Es fácil. / It's easy.

Es difícil. / It's difficult.

5. SER is used for the properties which are associated with things:

El papel es blanco. / The paper is white.

La hierba es verde. / The grass is green.

1. ESTAR is used (often with en) to indicate the location of a person or object:

Fredericton está en Nuevo Brunswick. / Fredericton is in New Brunswick.

El Nuevo Brunswick está en el Canadá. / New Brunswick is in Canada.

2. ESTAR is used to describe a changeable or temporary condition:

Roger no está bien hoy; está un poco enfermo. / Roger's not well today; he's a little bit sick.

Clara está mucho mejor. / Clare's a lot better today.

3. ESTAR is used in certain set phrases:

Estamos de visita en el Parque Nacional de Fundy. / We are visiting Fundy National Park.

Confusion arises when both ser and estar can be used in seemingly the same way. Sometimes, it is very difficult for the beginning language student to pick up the stylistic differences that differentiate ser from estar. For example: The soup is cold / la sopa está fría versus the snow is cold / la nieve es fría. The soup is cold / the snow is cold: what's the difference? In English, nothing. But in Spanish, there is a very clear difference.

la sopa está fría -- never mind, put it back on the stove and we'll warm it up; now it's warm -- la sopa está caliente; now it's too hot / ahora está demasiado caliente! Never mind, we'll put it back in the fridge! Now it's cold again! / Ahora está fría de nuevo! Hot or cold, fría or caliente, it's still soup.

Let's see what happens to the snow. La nieve es fría / the snow is cold. Okay, so we'll put it on the stove! Oh -oh! It's melted. Now we have water and we don't have snow any more! SER then gives the essence of a thing -- snow is, by definition, cold / la nieve es, por definición, fría. Heat it, and it's not snow any more. ESTAR gives changeable conditions that do not effect the essence of the material. Now the soup is [está] hot (stove), now the soup is [está] cold (fridge) etc etc.

SER and ESTAR: two verbs for to be. Learn the basic definitions with their examples and apply them. Bit by bit, you will get used to the sound and feel of the two verbs and you will soon learn to differentiate between them. Good luck! ¡Suerte!

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