Remember that there are two verbs in Spanish that mean to be, ser and estar. The difference between the two isn’t terribly difficult to grasp, but it takes some time to get used to using them correctly.
First, let’s start with the forms. Ser is irregular, so you just have to memorize the forms. The best way to do that? La práctica hace al maestro. (Practice makes perfect, or literally, practice makes [you] the master.)
- yo soy (I am)
- tú eres (you are)
- Usted es (you are, polite)
- él/ella es (he/she is)
- nosotros/as somos (we are)
- vosotros sois (you [pl, Spain] are)
- Ustedes son (you [pl] are)
- ellos/as son (they are)
Estar is a bit more predictable. It’s got (mostly) the regular -ar endings, but yo ends in -oy, and the endings are stressed except for nosotros.
- yo estoy (I am)
- tú estás (you are)
- Usted está (you are, polite)
- él/ella está (he/she is)
- nosotros/as estamos (we are)
- vosotros estáis (you [pl, Spain] are)
- Ustedes están (you [pl] are)
- ellos/as están (they are)
¿Cual es la diferencia? What’s the difference?
The easiest way to figure out whether you need to use ser or estar is to think about the type of quality or description that comes after the verb. Start by asking yourself two questions:
- Am I talking about a location?
- Am I talking about a temporary quality?
If the answer is yes, you’re (almost definitely) going to use estar. In just about all other cases, use ser.
Let’s start with estar, since you can usually rule in (or out) whether you’re going to use it pretty quickly. First, if you’re talking about a location, whether it’s temporary or not, use estar.
- Estamos en México. (We’re in Mexico.)
- Estoy en clase de español. (I’m in Spanish class.)
- No está en casa ahora. (She/He’s not home now.)
- ¿Dónde estás, Clara? (Where are you, Clara?)
You may have heard “permanent vs. impermanent” to describe when to use ser or estar. That often works, except in the case of locations of things like cities. For example, even though Bogotá isn’t going to stand up and walk into Venezuela any time soon, you still use estar if you’re talking about where Bogotá is, because you’re talking about a location.
- Bogotá está en Colombia. (Bogota is in Colombia.)
- Barcelona está en España. (Barcelona is in Spain.)
Estar: Temporary qualities
The next thing you need to ask yourself is whether you’re talking about a temporary quality other than location. For example, when you say “I’m sick,” you’re (hopefully) talking about a temporary state that will end after you get enough sleep and vitamin C.
- Estoy enfermo. (I’m sick.)
- María está cansada. (Maria’s tired.)
- No estás de buen humor hoy. (You’re not in a good mood today.)
- ¿Cómo están? (How are they?)
Ser: Inherent or Lasting Qualities, or Nouns
Those first two questions – am I talking about location? and am I talking about a temporary quality? – will cover most of the uses of estar. And if you’ve answered no to both of them, you’re left with ser. Ser is used to talk about inherent or lasting qualities – what your job is, where you’re from, what your religion or political affiliation is, and so on.
You’re probably thinking, hey, wait a minute. People change jobs, religions, and political affiliations all the time. True enough. But an easy way to remember it is if the thing following the verb is a noun, use ser.
- ¿De dónde eres? (Where are you from?)
- Soy de México. Soy mexicano. (I’m from Mexico. I’m Mexican.)
- Mi esposa es abogada. (My wife is a lawyer.)
- Somos católicos. (We’re Catholics.)
- Este gobierno no es demócratico. (This government isn’t democratic.)
Adjectives: Now or In General?
If you use an adjective to describe something, keep in mind that second question – am I talking about a temporary quality? – because this will determine which verb you use. Take a look:
- Las bananas son largas y amarillas. (Bananas are long and yellow.)
- ¿Son las bananas nutritivas? (Are bananas nutritious?)
- Las bananas no están maduras. (The bananas aren’t ripe.)
- Las bananas están caras este año. (Bananas are expensive this year.)
The first two examples use ser, because long and yellow and nutritious are being presented as general qualities of bananas, part of what inherently makes a banana a banana, even if bananas are sometimes neither. The second two examples use estar, because ripe and expensive this year are temporary qualities.
You could say las bananas son caras, but you’re saying something a bit different there – you’re claiming that as a general characteristic, bananas are an expensive fruit. Here are some similar pairs with people to help show this a bit more:
- Estoy feliz. (I’m happy.)
- Soy feliz. (I’m by nature a happy person.)
- Está aburrida. (She’s bored.)
- Es aburrida. (She’s a boring person.)
- Mi hermano está borracho. (My brother is drunk.)
- Mi hermano es un borracho. (My brother is an alcoholic.)
In the examples that use estar, the subject is in a temporary state of being happy, bored, or drunk. But in the examples that use ser, the quality of being happy, boring, or drunk/alcoholic is more than a temporary state. By using ser, you’re saying that these things are inherent characteristics.
Some Cases to Remember
There are three situations that you should keep in mind, because they may not be quite logical to you, at least given the two questions we started with. When you give the time, you always use ser. Yes, of course, the time changes, but if you remember that it’s a noun (la una, las dos), this doesn’t seem like an exception.
- ¿Qué hora es? (What time is it?)
- Es la una y media. (It’s one thirty.)
- Son las dos. (It’s two o’clock.)
If you’re talking about where something is happening or taking place, you use ser. Again, this might seem surprising, because we’re talking about location. You can either remember it as an exception, or if you’d like to tie it back to our rules about temporary or lasting qualities, you can think of it this way: an event lasts as long as it takes place, so where it takes place is a lasting or inherent quality of that event. No place, no event.
- Mi fiesta de cumpleaños es en un restaurante italiano. (My birthday party is [taking place] at an Italian restaurant.)
- La reunión es en la pequeña sala de conferencias. (The meeting is [taking place] in the small conference room.)
Dead or Alive
Probably the most surprising case, though, is muerto (dead.) You use estar with muerto, even though it may be the most permanent of all situations. There’s no way to tie this back to our rules, so call it an exception. If it helps, you also use estar with vivo, and at least that’s logical!
- La reina está muerta. (The queen is dead.)
- ¿Están vivos tus abuelos? (Are your grandparents alive?)