Few verbs have attracted as much attention and hours of study as the two “copular” verbs in Spanish: Ser and Estar. To an English native speaker, it seems bizarre to have two verbs which both mean “to be”, and distinguishing between them and their uses can be a major challenge in studying Spanish. Yet, even for linguists, these two verbs have been a source of much controversy. Here, we look at different ways of approaching these two verbs, as well as some of the problems in the classic teaching methods for these verbs.
First, we should note that Spanish does not have just two verbs which translate as “to be”. We can also use “sentar”, “verse”, “salir”, and a whole host of others in certain contexts to mean “be”. However, ser and estar tend to be of prime focus as these verbs are so frequently used. There are various ways to approach using these verbs – some of which are universally accepted, and some of which have caused controversy. We’ll start with the universally accepted approaches:
When you only use ser
With time phrases:
- Ya son las cinco
- It’s already 5 o clock
- Hoy es viernes
- Today is Friday
- Cuál es la fecha? Es el diez
- What’s the date? It’s the tenth
To identify or equate:
- El es de Argentina
- He’s from Argentina
- Es de madera
- It’s made of wood
With impersonal expressions:
- Es importante
- It’s important
- Es muy dificil
- It’s very difficult
When you only use estar
As an auxiliary verb, used to indicate progression:
- Está andando
- He/she is walking
To indicate location:
- Estamos en Londres
- We are in London
Ways to remember
Most textbooks recommend remembering the uses of ser and estar, and there are various devices to help students with this. I came across a good acronym (on this Russian site) for using both ser and estar. The uses of ser can be memorised using the acronym “DOCTOR”:
“Estar” can be remembered using the acronym “PLACE”:
When you can use either ser or estar
However, there are cases when you can use both ser and estar, and this changes the meaning of the sentence:
- La casa fue destruida
- The house was destroyed = Focus on the action of being destroyed
- La casa estuvo destruida
- The house was destroyed = Focus on the resulting state of the house following its destruction
- Madrid es allí
- Madrid is there (equating the noun with the place, for example “Madrid is in Spain”: “Madrid es en España”
- Madrid está allí
- Madrid is there (focus on location of the place – imagine someone pointing at Madrid and saying this)
Good question. There is clearly something that links all of the occasions that you use ser which is for some reason separate for all of the occasions that estar is used. Spanish speakers don’t have to learn these rules for when to use either ser or estar, so there must be some underlying attributes for when these verbs are used.
One of the main approaches taken by course books to these two verbs was actually first proposed in 1847 by Andrés Bello in “Gramática de la lengua castellana” and, as we’ll see, is in serious need of updating. Bello proposed that ser denotes permanent qualities, whereas estar indicates more transient, impermanent states. That’s why you get sentences such as “es inglés” (he’s English – “Englishness” is a permanent quality), and “Estamos en Londres” (“we’re in London” – temporarily, as we can move any time). This works (more or less) for a large number of instances, and is also a good introduction for how to use these verbs. Look at the following list, and think about why estar or ser is used in each case:
- Es de Barcelona
- He/she is from Barcelona. This is a quality of a person, rather than a state – someone’s origin is not subject to change.
- Ella está en Barcelona
- She is in Barcelona. This is temporary – tomorrow she may move to somewhere else, so we use estar.
- La silla es verde
- The chair is green. The “green-ness” is the inherent characteristic of the chair, hence verb ser.
This is also useful for explaining when both verbs can be used but the choice changes the meaning of the phrase:
- Está borracho
- He/she is drunk. However, this is temporary, and tomorrow he’ll be sober.
- Es un borracho
- He/she is a drunk. Using the verb ser indicates an essential characteristic of a person, indicating in this case that someone is a drunk.
So far, so good. It’s useful, and can help to explain many differences in meaning. However, how are we to decide whether something is a temporary characteristic or a permanent essence? Why should someone being a drunk be an essence, rather than a characteristic? These are philosophical and metaphysical judgements, and will vary for each person. It’s not good enough as an explanation – and it doesn’t even work in some cases. Look at some of the following sentences:
- Está muerto
- He/she is dead. Using the verb estar would indicate a temporary state according to this viewpoint. Are we to assume people will come back to life? Does this pre-suppose the afterlife? Why can’t someone be dead in essence?
- Qué frío está el helado!
- How cold is this ice cream!? But, by definition, ice cream will be cold – that’s surely a permanent state, yet the verb supposedly indicates temporary state. (Ok, so ice cream can melt and become warm, but then it won’t be ice cream anymore 😉 )
The choice is NOT automatic
Perhaps my biggest problem with the traditional approach is that we assume that the choice of verb is determined by what it is referring to. The sky’s blueness, for example, we would normally consider a characteristic. Accorrding to the traditional rules, then, we should automatically use ser. However, if we say “el cielo es azul”, we mean something different to “el cielo está azul”. In English, we could translate the first phrase as “the sky is blue”, and the second as “the sky is blue [as opposed to grey]”. The choice of verb we make depends on the nuance we want to convey, and is not automatically cued by whatever we’re talking about.
It’s all about your point of view
One of the most effective treatments of these two verbs was given by Navas Ruiz in 1963, who first theorised that the choice of verb is not down to metaphysics or philosophy, but the point of view that the speaker wants to express. Ser sets up an atemporal relationship, whereas estar sets up a temporal relationship. That means that when we use ser, we are abstracting the meaning from anything to do with time and duration. We could imagine it as a simple “=” sign. Estar establishes the possession of an attribute for a period of time. If it is affected by time, that means it can stop, be interrupted, and mutate. An example he gives is for the sentence “la nieve es blanca” vs “la nieve está blanca” (both translated as “the snow is white”). In the first example, the speaker is attributing whiteness to the snow, and in that moment it coudn’t be anything else, or at least the speaker is not concerned about whether it will become anything else – it is atemporal. In the second instance, the speaker is emphasising that the snow is white but is susceptible to change – it could become dirty or less white. It’s the difference in meaning in English when we say a)”Snow is white” b)”Look how white the snow is today (as opposed to yellow, for example 😉 )”.
Location, location, location
Choosing ser or estar with location often presents difficulties. Typically, when locating something physical we will use estar, as it’s accepted that location is temporary:
- Estamos a 50 kilometros de Bogotá
- We’re 50 kilometres from Bogotá
- Nuestra casa está en la calle quinta
- Our house is on 5th Street
Events usually take the verb ser, however:
- La fiesta es en el parque
- The party is in the park
I was long confused by why this might be the case, and asked the good people at Word Reference on this thread. It seems that even among native speakers there is disagreement over what’s correct. Ser is generally accepted for events, with the principle reason being that an event is not seen as having physical or spacial properties, and is not defined as such. It exists more conceptually: If we ask “show me the play”, we can’t point to an object and say “there it is”. We can point to the theatre or the actors in it, but not the concept of a play as it doesn’t have any physical existence. Therefore, it is “atemporal” in a sense, so ser is usually used.
You can learn how to use these two verbs by learning lists of where they are and aren’t used, or you can try to go deeper to really understand the essence of how they work. Approaching it more holistically as in the second case, you will have a better understanding of what these verbs really mean and will hopefully be better equipped to use them. It’s also very useful to learn a few examples of how each verb is used, and as you see each instance, ask yourself whether the speaker is referring to something “temporal” or “atemporal”. Good luck, and let us know any questions in the comments below!
We hope this was a useful guide. If you’ve learnt anything from it, please feel free to share using the buttons on the left-hand side – we’d love a tweet or some facebook love! What are some other ways that you’ve approached these two verbs?