Learning a new language always comes with a few obstacles along the way. English has its diphthongs and words spelled completely differently to what they sound like, German has its articles (der, die, das) and the Slavic languages have their unusual cases. If you go to Spain to learn Spanish, the first obstacle you will face in the Spanish language is “ser” and “estar”.
Here we will provide you with a little overview of this part of Spanish grammar.
Perhaps it was Spanish that Shakespeare was referring to with this, one of his most famous quotes? “To be” is an irregular verb in most languages (think: I am, you are, he is, etc.) and is often the first tricky bit of grammar beginners learn, whatever the language. The Spanish language is unusual in that it has two ways to say to be: ser and estar. Which version of the verb you use depends on a number of different factors. It’s tricky at first, but eventually you will be asking yourself: should I use to be (ser) or to be (estar)?
If we try to explain this in as simple terms as possible, “ser” is used for permanent characteristics, while “estar” is generally used to express temporary states. It’s a little bit more complicated than this, which we will go into below. But if you can remember this simple rule, you will be correct in most cases.
As already mentioned above, ser is used to describe permanent and inherent characteristics. This includes a person’s origin, identity, profession or religion. For example, “Ella es de España” (she is from Spain). While some of these characteristics can change over time, such as a profession or even a religion, ser still applies in these cases.
Ser is also used when you are talking about when an event or activity is taking place. “La cita es a las cinco” (the appointment is at five). This also applies, for example, to days of the week: “Hoy es lunes” (today is Monday) or when simply telling the time: “Son las nueve y cuarto” (it’s a quarter past nine).
You also use ser when talking about possessions: if something belongs to a friend, “es de mí amigo”. It is also used when describing someone's physical appearance or their personality traits: “ella es alta” (she is tall), “la mesa es pequeña” (the table is small), or “el es tímido” (he is shy). Again, these are characteristics that are generally considered permanent, and do not include words relating to a person’s moods or feelings.
Use “estar” when you are talking about locations and the positions of objects. Here are a couple of examples: “el libro está encima de la mesa” (the book is on the table) or “Sofía está en casa” (Sofía is at home). As mentioned above, estar is used for statements that are not permanent: Sofía could leave the house, or you could pick up the book.
When you are describing temporary states, in particular when talking about moods and emotions, you also use estar. Examples include “estoy cansado” (I am tired) or “el café está caliente” (the coffee is hot). This can also apply to physical health: “mi hermana está enferma” (my sister is sick) or even the weather: “está lloviendo” (it’s raining).
This is where it might start getting a little trickier: Estar is also used when talking about ongoing actions. In English, these are typical phrases that start with “I am” followed by a verb with an -ing ending, for example “estoy estudiando español” (I am studying Spanish) or “él está viendo la tele” (he is watching TV).
As you gradually get used to how the verbs are conjugated, you’ll also start using them more and more. Don’t worry about making mistakes - a native speaker will generally see past your little errors and still get what you’re trying to say. Try to remember that the rules above are just a few common examples to help you to get to know the difference between ser and estar. As you start to become better at speaking Spanish, there will be a few more rules that you will need to be aware of, but we don’t want to confuse you too much yet!
As with all language rules, practice makes perfect! And by familiarising yourself with some of these examples you can start to confidently use both phrases in your Spanish conversations.
The best way to improve is by taking an intensive Spanish course in Spain or Latin America. Estudia-España offers great deals on Spanish courses across the Spanish-speaking world - often with better prices than the schools themselves! Visit our website and find the perfect language course to help you perfect your Spanish!