Ser and estar have been fighting an epic existential battle for the past five hundred years.
What started out as an innocent mix-up between three Latin verbs (esse to be, sedere to sit and stare to stand, to stay) has been escalating into the foggy quagmire of meaning that we find ourselves in today.
Before we can navigate this complex landscape we need to find our true north: the difference between the essence of things and their state.
Ser is most often used:
- to define the essence of things,
- to describe their identifying characteristics, and
- to pigeonhole them into a category
—Dame un ejemplo, que no lo pillo.
“Give me an example, (since) I don’t get it.”
—Te doy tres: una mesa es un mueble con patas, mi perro es muy cariñoso y tú eres un estudiante.
“I (will) give you three: a table is a (piece of) furniture with legs, my dog is very affectionate, and you are a student.”
—Vale. El primero define lo que es una mesa, el segundo describe una característica intrínseca de tu perro y el tercero me encasilla en la categoría de estudiante.
“Ok. The first defines what a table is, the second describes an intrinsic characteristic of your dog, and the third pigeonholes me in the category of student.”
Estar is commonly used:
- to indicate the location of things (their physical state), and
- to single out the state they are in, especially when we want to
- a) subtly distinguish it from other states, or
- b) imply the cause that led to this state.
—Venga. Creo que ya lo entiendo. Ahora dame algunos ejemplos con estar.
“Ok. I think that now I understand it. Now give me some examples with estar.”
—Ahí van: la mesa está pegada a la pared, mi perro está enfermo y tú estás cansado de estudiar.
“Here they go: the table is right up against the wall, my dog is sick, and you are tired of studying.”
—A ver si lo he entendido: el primero indica la ubicación de la mesa, el segundo distingue el estado de enfermedad de un estado de salud y el tercero explica que mi estado de cansancio se debe al estudio.
“Let’s see if I have understood it: the first indicates the location of the table, the second distinguishes the state of sickness from a state of health, and the third explains that my state of tiredness is due to the study.”
—Lo has clavado.
“You nailed it.”
Although they both have their primary roles, ser and estar have spent centuries hoarding additional usages, and they’re not going to give them up anytime soon.
Don’t try to learn all the usages of ser and estar at the same time.
If you were learning how to juggle, you’d want to get really good with those plastic balls before you tried your luck with knives, flaming torches, and radioactive chainsaws.
So, before we move on to the more confusing cases, let’s go through a few more examples of essence vs. state.
La playa es el sitio que más me relaja.
The beach is the place that most relaxes me.
This is a definition. You could replace es with an equals sign (=) and it would still work.
Esta playa está muy bien para relajarse después del trabajo.
This beach is very good for relaxing (oneself) after (the) work.
The bien adverb is contrasting the good state of the beach from any other possible state.
Dicen que el agua salada es muy buena para la salud.
They say that the salty water is very good for the health.
Here we’re talking about an identifying characteristic of sea water.
The difference between the previous example and this one is that bien is an adverb. That means you can only use estar because ser doesn’t work with adverbs. This is worth tattooing somewhere in your brain:
- Esto está bien (adverb).
- Esto es bueno (adjective).
Yo no soy un lagarto. Me gusta estar en el agua más que tomar el sol.
I am not a lizard. I like being in the water more than (taking) the sun.
In the first part we refuse to be pigeonholed as a beach lizard; in the second, we’re talking about the location we prefer to be in.
This is the 80-20 ser vs. estar line. The smartest way to invest your time is to internalize the usages above this line–they will get you 80% of the way to mastery.
Make a list of the ser and estar sentences that you come across in your daily Spanish life and focus on the ones that fit above this line. When you feel like you totally grok those, you can start paying attention to the stuff below.
Welcome to the 20% jungle.
Arguably the most confusing aspect of the ser–estar duality is the fact that every adjective has a regular day job with ser, but a bunch of them also have a completely different side hustle with estar:
—Te juro que este restaurante no es malo.
“I swear (to you) that this restaurant is not bad (identifying characteristic).”
—Pues el tiramisú que me han traído está bastante malo.
“(Well), the tiramisu they just brought me tastes really bad (new meaning: to taste bad).”
Three things to remember here:
- If you’re comfortable with the essence vs. state distinction, you don’t really have to go and memorize a long list of adjectives. Just notice them when they come up in your readings and conversations and go with your intuition when you try to use them.
Not every adjective will work with both ser and estar; and even if they do, one of the usages will often be much more common than the other.
If you’re not sure, but your gut tells you that you need a preposition, it’s almost always estar:
—Es un sitio muy seguro. Estoy seguro de que te gustará.
It is a very safe place (identifying characteristic). I’m convinced that it will please you (new meaning: to be sure of something).
—De acuerdo. Estoy listo para ir. Qué listo eres cuando te conviene.
“All right. I’m ready to go (new meaning: to be ready for something). (It’s amazing) how smart you are when it suits you (identifying characteristic).”
As far as I know, the only exception to this estar-preposition connection is soy consciente de (I’m aware that) (de is the preposition), as opposed to estoy consciente (I’m conscious) (no preposition).
This is an easy one: if you have a gerundio (verb forms that end in -ando, -iendo, or -yendo) use estar. Always:
—Mi madre me está llamando, así que tengo que irme.
“My mother is calling me, so I have to go”
—Nosotros también nos vamos porque se está haciendo tarde.
“We’re also (leaving) because it’s getting late.”
Notice that we’re leaving is not translated as nos estamos yendo. In English it’s totally fine to say we’re leaving and still be at the club an hour later waiting for your friends to find their coats, but in Spanish we use the present to indicate this near future meaning (nos vamos, we go) and only use the gerundio for things that have already begun.
Ser has a monopoly on:
- Indicating at what time events take place (it’s a lazy stand-in for celebrarse to take place)
- Telling what time it is:
—El cumpleaños de Santi es a las 20:00, ¿verdad?
“Santi’s birthday (party) is at 8pm, right?”
—Correcto. Así que date prisa que ya son las 19:45.
“Correct. So (give yourself haste) (since) it’s 7:45pm already.”
Dates are also usually indicated with ser, but if you have synesthesia and think of time as a location, you can also use estar:
Hoy es martes.
Today is Tuesday.
Hoy estamos a martes.
Today we are (literally) on Tuesday.
When it’s neither ser nor estar
To add to the confusion, sometimes we don’t need either ser or estar. The most common alternatives tend to be haber, hacer, tener or llevar.
—No entiendo cómo hay tanta gente en la calle con el frío que hace.
“I don’t understand how there are so many people in the street (considering) how cold it is.”
—Yo no tengo tanto frío. Y eso que llevo una hora aquí esperándote.
“I (am) not so cold. (And that’s considering) that I have been here for an hour waiting for you.”
The safest road out of the ser vs. estar dilemma is to understand the essence vs. state distinction. Old grammar books used to teach that you should focus on the permanent vs. temporary aspect of things, but that led to all kinds of problems because there are permanent states (Mi hámster está muerto, My hamster is dead) and temporary essences (Mi primo es estudiante de primer año, My cousin is (a) first year student).
If you find ser and estar confusing, don’t make it more confusing by trying to learn all of the usages and all the verb forms at the same time. Stay above the 80% line and focus on the present tense. Once you get the essence-state distinction in the present, you can start adding additional tenses and moods.
The list of ser and estar usages is endless. If you come across any instance that puzzles you, feel free to ask about it in the comments.