Quick Tips for Understanding "Ser" and "Estar"
Most Spanish language learners want to pull their hair out when deciding whether to use ser or estar. Like por and para, ser and estar can be very tricky for learners. Ser and estar both mean to be and are used frequently in daily Spanish communication. While it can be confusing, we have some quick tips that will alleviate your headache and make you more confident when differentiating between these two tricky verbs.
Use ser for permanence and estar for transience
This first tip is the guiding rule for figuring out when to use ser and estar. As you may already know, the main difference between ser and estar is that ser refers to more permanent traits of someone or something, while estar refers to transient conditions. Check out the difference in the following two examples:
In this first example, notice how we use ser for descriptions that are physical traits, which should not, under normal circumstances, change.
In the second example, we used estar with the adjective confundida because Sandra’s confusion is a non-permanent condition; today, Sandra is confused while finding her way to the restaurant, but she may not still be confused tomorrow.
Use estar when describing something in the moment
When we use ser to describe the qualities or characteristics of a person, place, or thing, the meaning behind those descriptions are disassociated from time or duration. However, when we use estar to describe the same attributes, they become associated with the short period of time in which the speaker is using them. Let’s look at some examples where the context can switch when we use these two different verbs:
In the example above, the speaker is equating his or her girlfriend with being beautiful. The description of beauty exists outside of any parameters of time.
In the second example, the speaker uses estar to highlight that the person that she or he is referring to in the sentence is especially beautiful while she is wearing the wedding dress.
Use estar for location, except when speaking about events
Estar is usually used to describe where a person or thing is physically located. Although an event takes place at a physical location, when speaking about events occurring at a specific point in time, you should use ser. If the meaning of the verb is to be held or to take place, make sure you use ser. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:
In the first example, the speaker uses estar to indicate the location of the exam, where the exam being referred to is the physical collection of papers with questions on them.
In the second example, the speaker uses ser instead because the exam being referred to is the event where the students will take the physical exam. We would use ser in this way most commonly with words that are events, such as una cita (a date), una fiesta (a party), or even un concierto (a concert).
Use ser for an action and estar for a current condition
Use ser when you’re talking about the action taken on something or someone. Use estar when you’re talking about someone or something’s state. In the first example, notice how the focus is on the actual action of the family cooking the soup:
In this second example, we’ll use estar because the focus is on the resulting state of the soup, that is that it has been cooked and is ready to be eaten.
Use estar to describe how food tastes
Although ser is usually used for permanent and descriptive characteristics, use estar to describe how food tastes. In the example below, we use estar because we are referring to the particular churro that will only exist for that point in time in which it is in front of us before or just after we have eaten it:
We hope that these tips will help you feel more confident when using ser or estar. And remember, it’s okay to make mistakes! The more you practice, the easier it will be for you to choose the right verb!