Choosing between ser and estar in Spanish

"To be or not to be?" In Spanish, a better question might be: "To be, or to be?", as in "ser or estar?" That is because both ser and estarmean "to be" in English. Once you are familiar with the distinction between the two, it will become quite simple to see when to use each - but it can be very challenging for beginning Spanish speakers.

Remember [from lesson 6 - irregular verbs] that each of these verbs has an irregular conjugation:

ser [to be]
yo soynosotrossomos
tú eresvosotrossois
él, ella, usted esellos/ellas/ustedes son
estar [to be]
yoestoynosotrosestamos
túestásvosotrosestáis
él, ella, ustedestáellos/ellas/ustedesestán


Uses of estar
Estar, broadly speaking, is used to describe more temporary states.

It is used for location:
El perroestásentado en la silla. [The dog is sitting in the chair.]
Pápáestá en la cocina. [Dad is in the kitchen.]
Dad is temporarily in the kitchen, and the dog is temporarily in the chair - very few locations are absolutely permanent, so estar is the better choice. La oficina está al lado de la cafetería. [The office is next to the cafeteria.] Even though this example seems to describe a permanent location, estar is still the correct verb to use.

It is used for conditions:
Los niñosestáncontentosporquemañanaesnavidad! [The children are happy because tomorrow is Christmas!]
Mi abuelaestáenferma. [My grandmother is sick.]
Estoytriste. [I'm sad.]
These conditions are likely to change over the course of several hours or days, so estar better captures their temporary nature.

Uses of ser
In general, ser is used to describe permanent conditions.
It is used for description:
Soy Martín. [I amMartin.]
Ella es inteligente y atlética. [She is intelligent and athletic.]
El señor Lopez es profesor de inglés. [Mr. Lopez is an English teacher.]
These are attributes or essential qualities that will not change under normal circumstances.

It is used for origin:
Pablo es de México. [Pablo is from Mexico.]
Origin is not something that can change, so ser is the logical choice.

It is used for time:
Es el once de mayo. [It's may 11th.]
Son lascuatro y media de la tarde. [It's four thirty in the afternoon.]

It is used to tell the location of an event:
La fiesta es en la biblioteca. [The party is in the library.]
For many English-speakers, this usage seems to be an exception - an event seems like a temporary condition. Think of the location as an inherent and permanent aspect of the event itself - or just be aware that this is an "exception."

Some comparisons
In some sentences, it is grammatically correct to use either ser or estar - but the use you select changes the meaning of the sentence.
Estáenfermo. [He's sick.] vs. Es enfermo. [He's a sickly person.]
Estoycansado. [I'm tired now.] vs. Soy cansado. [I'm a tired person.]
Ellasestánlistas. [They are ready.] vs. Ellas son listas. [They are quick thinkers.]

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