Two of the first verbs a budding Spanish student learn are ser and estar. Both mean ‘to be’ and are used regularly, so trying to get your head around which one to use and when can be daunting at first. Luckily, there are some simple rules that will help you differentiate between the two verbs and make your introduction to Spanish verbs an agradable one.
When to use”ser” – describe characteristics
Ser is used to indicate facts or characteristics or aspects of identity that are (often) permanent in nature, for example:
- Physical descriptions
- Personality or character traits
- Profession, religion, political affiliation, nationality, origin, race or gender
- The material out of which something is made
It is also used when discussing time, dates, days, seasons and events and to indicate possession or personal relationships.
When in doubt, the DOCTOR (Description, Occupation, Characteristic, Time, Origin and Relationship) may be able to help you decide if ser is the medicine you need.
When to use “estar” – states of being
Estar, on the other hand, generally describes the state of something, for example:
- Physical conditions or appearances
- Feelings, moods and emotions
- Civil state (married, single, divorced, deceased)
- The location of people and things
If you’re not sure if you should use estar, the acronym PLACE (Position, Location, Action, Condition and Emotion) may come in handy. You can also use this rhyme to help you place your ‘to be’: For how you feel or where you are, always use the verb estar.
Comparing Ser and Estar
Words can take on completely different meanings depending on which verb you choose. In the below table, adjectives used alongside ser are characteristics of the object, whereas those used alongside estar describe a mood or appearance.
|Ella es callada|
(She is quiet / a quiet person)
|Ella está callada|
(She is being quiet)
| Soy nerviosa|
(I am a nervous person)
|Estoy nerviosa |
(I feel nervous)
|Él es guapo|
(He is handsome)
|Él está guapo|
(He looks handsome; often refers to clothing)
To be or not to be afraid of ser and estar? We hope you pick option two! And don’t forget that practice makes perfect. The more you practice, the easier it will be for you to choose the correct verb every time.
FURTHER LEARNING: The Language Transfer “Thinking Method” has a great explanation on the difference between “ser” and “estar” (not to mention a whole series of great Spanish lessons, free on Youtube). Check it out and let us know what you think…. what is most tricky for you about the difference between “ser” and “estar”?