Ser vs. Estar

One of the most stressful parts of learning Spanish for many language learners, other than the subjunctive and por vs. para, is knowing the difference between ser and estar. But it doesn't have to be stressful! While both of these verbs mean to be and are used all the time in daily communication, the following simple rules should help you to differentiate between the two. If you have any doubts on how to conjugate either verb (they're irregular verbs), check out the verb conjugations of ser and estar.

Uses of Ser

Ser is used to classify and identify permanent or lasting attributes. If this general rule is too vague for you, think of the acronym DOCTOR, which stands for Descriptions, Occupations, Characteristics, Time, Origin, and Relationships.

1. Descriptions

For descriptions, think of what you would say if someone asked you How would you describe __? These are the essential qualities that define a person or thing and probably won’t change anytime soon. These descriptions can be names, physical descriptions, and even religions.

Yo soy Raúl.
I am Raúl.
 
Yo soy alta, morena, y delgada.
I am tall, dark-skinned, and thin.
 
Andrés es católico.
Andrés is Catholic.
 

Find more on using ser with descriptions here!

2. Occupations

For occupations, think of what you would say if someone asked you What do you do for a living?

Soy profesora del español.
I am a Spanish teacher.
 
Ellos son estudiantes.
They are students.
 
Mi padre era jardinero.
My father was a gardener.
 

Notice that the indefinite articles un, una, unos, and unas are not used when describing an occupation with ser.

3. Characteristics

Characteristics are personality descriptions of a person. This category is included to hammer home to point that descriptions are talked about with ser.

Amalia es inteligente, atrevida, y amable.
Amalia is intelligent, daring, and friendly.
 
Mi esposo es romántico y cariñoso.
My husband is romantic and caring.
 

4. Time

Time includes days, dates, and hours. For hours, use es for one o’clock and son for all other hours.

Hoy es miércoles.
Today is Wednesday.
 
Ayer fue mi cumpleaños.
Yesterday was my birthday.
 
Ahora es la una.
Right now it is one o’clock.
 
Son las cinco veinticinco.
It's five twenty-five.
 

Find more on using ser with time here!

5. Origin

The place a person is from or the material something is made from is an origin.

Celia es de España.
Celia is from Spain.
 
Las sillas son de madera.
The chairs are made of wood.
 
Mi anillo es de oro.
My ring is made of gold.
 

6. Relationships

Personal relationships are also talked about with ser.

Lynne es mi madre.
Lynne is my mother.
 
Marcos es mi ex-novio.
Marcos is my ex-boyfriend.
 
Juana es mi jefe.
Juana is my boss.
 

Find more on using ser with origins here!

Uses of Estar

Estar is used to indicate temporary states and locations. If that general rule doesn’t suffice, there are two acronyms that you can think of, PLACE and LoCo. PLACE stands for Position, Location, Action, Condition, and Emotion. LoCo stands for Locations and Conditions. Let's look at PLACE now.

1. Position

Position is the physical position or posture a person or thing is in.

Mi abuela está sentada.
My grandmother is sitting down/seated.
 
Estaba acostada cuando me llamaste.
I was lying down when you called me.
 

2. Location

The location of someone or something describes where it is permanently, temporarily, actually, or conceptually.

El baño está a la derecha de la sala.
The bathroom is to the right of the living room.
 
Estamos en el café ahora y estaremos en el cine en 20 minutos.
We are at the café right now and we will be at the movie theatre in 20 minutes.
 
Mi abuelo está en la luna.
My grandfather is out of it/lost.
 

Exception! The location of an event or party is described using ser, not estar.

La fiesta es en mi casa. (The party is at my house.)

Find more on using estar with locations here!

3. Actions

Estar is used to describe ongoing actions using progressive tenses.

Estoy lavando los platos sucios.
I am washing the dirty dishes.
 
Estamos leyendo los periódicos.
We are reading the newspapers.
 
Mi bisabuelo está muerto.
My great-grandfather is dead.
 

In Spanish, death is seen as an ongoing action, not a permanent state, so you use estar to talk about being dead.

4. Conditions

Physical and mental conditions are described using estar. Things that are likely to vary over several hours, days, or even years can be conditions

Estoy tan cansada esta mañana.
I am so tired this morning.
 
Mis niños están enfermos hoy.
My children are sick today.
 
Mi padre está un poco loco.
My father is (acting) a little crazy.
 

Find more on using estar with conditions here!

5. Emotions

How a person is feeling at a certain moment is described using estar.

Estoy triste.
I am sad.
 
Ella está contenta porque recibió unas flores de su novio.
She is happy because she received some flowers from her boyfriend.
 

Meaning Changes With Ser and Estar Phrases

There are some words that can be used with both ser and estar to form verb phrases, and these take on different meanings depending on the verb. Here are some examples of these types of phrases.

Ser PhraseEnglishEstar PhraseEnglish
ser aburrido
 
to be boring
estar aburrido
 
to be bored
ser bueno
 
to be good
estar bueno
 
to be tasty/attractive
ser cansado
 
to be a tiring person
estar cansado
 
to be tired
ser grave
 
to be serious
estar grave
 
to be seriously ill
ser listo
 
to be clever
estar listo
 
to be ready
ser malo
 
to be bad
estar malo
 
to be ill
ser orgulloso
 
to be conceited or vain
estar orgulloso
 
to be proud
ser moreno
 
to be dark-skinned
estar moreno
 
to be tanned
ser pálido
 
to be pale-skinned
estar pálido
 
to be pale
ser pesado
 
to be heavy/to be tiresome
estar pesado
 
to act annoying
ser rico
 
to be rich
estar rico
 
to be tasty
ser seguro
 
to be safe
estar seguro
 
to be certain
ser verde
 
to be green
estar verde
 
to be unripe
ser viejo
 
to be old
estar viejo
 
to look old
ser vivo
 
to be sharp
estar vivo
 
to be alive

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