Essential Spanish: Ser or Estar?

Essential Spanish Ser or Estar

One of the most confusing parts in the experience of learning the Spanish language can be the verbs ser and estar. Both these verbs have the same meaning as English language verb to be but are used in different ways. The simplest way to think about the difference is that ser is used when speaking of the essence of something or something that is permanent, while estar is used when speaking of the state of something, or something that is impermanent. In this article we will discuss how to properly translate the verb to be to either ser or estar while considering the following:

  • Using ser for the essence of something and estar for the state of something
  • Using mnemonic devices to remember when to use ser and estar
  • The importance of using ser and estar correctly to maintain nuance and meaning

Essence versus State

We use ser to describe the essence of something, and estar to describe its state. In fact, ser comes from the latin word esse, meaning essence in English, and estar comes from the latin word stare meaning state. In contrast, in the English language we use the verb to be to denote both state and essence.

The state of a subject is usually impermanent, so most grammar guides encourage Spanish language learners to remember to use estar in impermanent cases and ser for permanent cases. For example, if I say “yo estoy feliz” (I am happy), it means that my current mood is happy but that can change at any moment, I am in an impermanent state of happiness. We can also say “el lapiz está en el suelo” (the pen is on the floor), the pen is currently on the floor, but it can be moved, its current location (or state) is impermanent.

Ser, on the other hand, is used for more permanent cases such as one’s nationality. You say “Vanessa es colombiana” to mean Vanessa is Colombian; her Colombian nationality is permanent and a part of her essence as a person. We also use ser for physical descriptions. For example, “las montañas son grandes” (the mountains are big) describes the permanent characteristics, or essence, of the mountains. Another example is when telling time. We say “son las diez y media de la noche” (it is ten thirty pm) we are describing the time in one specific moment. Similarly, we also use ser for describing where an event is taking place “Ia fiesta es en su casa” (the party is in her house), the specific event is happening in one place in one moment.Using Mnemonic Devices

As previously mentioned, in the English language the verb to be is equivalent to both Spanish language verbs ser and estar. These are also copular verbs, meaning they are verbs that link an adjective or noun to a subject. To help remember how to use ser and estar Spanish language learners can remember the mnemonic devices D.O.T. (description, origin, time) for ser and Lo.Co. (location and condition) for estar.  Here are some examples of use for each of these cases:

Uses of Ser

D: Description

Ella es alta (she is tall). We use ser because an essential physical characteristic of the girl is that she is tall.

Yo soy un professor (I am a teacher). Here we use ser because someone’s profession is seen as part of who they are, their essence, even if one’s profession may change throughout their life.

Él es amable (he is a friendly person).  Again, we use ser because one of the characteristics of this man’s personality is that he is friendly.

O: Origin

Yo soy Maria (I am Maria). We use ser to state names because they are part of a person’s essence.

La cartera es de cuero (the wallet is made of leather). We use ser because the essence of the wallet is leather, if it is made of leather it cannot be changed.

T: Time

Son las tres de la tarde (It is three pm). We use ser for telling what time it is at any specific moment.

Hoy es lunes el primero de agosto (today is Monday, the first of August). Today can never be another date so we use ser.

Uses of Estar

Lo: Location

La tienda está en la calle Independencia (The shop is on Independencia Street). We always use estar for location, where something is currently, including the address.

Yo estoy en la escuela ahora (I am in the school now).  We use estar for locations of people and things (but not events).

Las llaves están en la mesa (the keys are on the table).  This sentence describes the current location of the keys so we use estar.

Co: Condition

Él está feliz (he is happy). The current condition of the man is that he is happy. He is feeling happy in this moment, but that feeling can change.

Siempre estoy cansado por la mañana (I am always tired in the morning).  We use estar here even though I am always tired in the morning, being tired is a state that will change; it is not an essential part of who I am.

Catalina está enferma (Catalina is sick). This sentence means that Catalina is currently, but not permanently, sick so we use estar.

The Importance of Proper Usage of Ser and Estar

As you can see, when translating from the English language verb to be it is important to use the correct Spanish language translation or the nuances of the text may be changed. If one chooses the incorrect verb, a native Spanish language speaker will immediately notice the error, and the translated document will seem unprofessional. Furthermore, if one chooses the incorrect verb, the meaning of the sentence will change. Imagine the offense that could be taken if someone wanted to express that Jaime is feeling bored but they wrote “Jaime es aburrido”, meaning Jaime is boring, when they should have written “Jaime está aburrido”.

Unless one is a Spanish language expert, it is easy to make mistakes using ser and estar. That is why it is important to always use Spanish translation and copy editing services from professionals at Spanish with Style. The Spanish language experts at Spanish with Style will ensure that the quality of the translated text is excellent with all the nuances of the original text maintained.