Ser and estar (To Be)

The most commonly used verbs in Spanish are ser and estar.  In English they are presented in the infinitive (unconjugated form) and mean “to be.”   Non-Spanish speakers have a problem with how and when to use either verb. This is similar to the  problem non-English speakers have with understanding why “thought” isn’t pronounced “thaw!”  How can (o-u-g-h-t) you combine vowels and consonants in such a way to produce a proper word?

Learning a new language in the context of culture is so much more important than learning it from a purely grammatical perspective.  Once you understand the principles involved you will begin to understand how to use these verbs (action words).  Let us look at the conjugation (breakdown) of the verb ser. As a general rule Ser is used to classify and identify permanent or lasting attributes. If the general rule isn´t specific enough for you, think of the acronym DOCTOR, which stands for Description, Occupation, Characteristic, Time, Origin, andRelationship.

Conjugation of ser

yo soy

Tú eres

Él,ella,usted  es

Ellos/ellas son

Nosotros somos

Ellos,ellas,ustedes son


For description, think of what you would say if someone asked you “what´s he like?”  or “describe this to me?”These are the essential qualities that define a person or something and probably won´t change. They can be a name or a physical description.

  • Yo soy Raúl. (I am Raúl.)
  • Yo soy alta, morena, y delgada. (I am tall, dark-skinned, and thin.)
  • El reloj es blanco ( the watch is red)
  • El cielo es azul (the sky is blue)

2. Occupation

Occupations are seen as life-long careers and are therefore seen as more “permanent” than many people would think in the United States.

  • Soy profesora del español. (I am a Spanish teacher.)
  • Ellos son estudiantes. (They are students.)
  • Mi padre era jardinero. (My father was a gardener.)

No Indefinite Articles

Notice that the indefinite articles un, una, unos, and unas are omitted when describing an occupation after the verb ser.

3. Characteristic

Characteristics are personality descriptions of a person. These would probably be the second thing you say to “What´s he like?”

  • Amalia es inteligente, atrevida, y amable. (Amalia is intelligente, daring, and friendly.)
  • Mi esposo es romántico y cariñoso. (My husband is romantic and caring.)

4. Time

Time includes days, dates, and hours. For hours, use es for one o´clock and son for all other hours.

  • Hoy es miércoles. (Today is Wednesday.)
  • Ayer fue mi cumpleaños. (Yesterday was my birthday.)
  • Ahora es la una y media. (Right now it´s one thirty.)
  • Son las cinco y veintecinco. (It´s five twenty five.)

5. Origin

As the place a person is from or the material something is made from is not going to change we use ser for origin.

  • Celia es de España. (Celia is from Spain.)
  • Adela es peruana. (Adela is Peruvian.)
  • Mi anillo es de oro. (My ring is gold.)

6. Relationship

Even after someone dies or someone breaks up, relationships are described using ser.

Religion is a Relationship

Also, since religion is considered a relationship with a higher power, religions are also described using ser.

  • Lynne es mi madre. (Lynne is my mother.)
  • Marcos es mi ex-novio. (Marcos is my ex-boyfriend.)
  • Andrés es católico. (Andrés is Catholic.)

Estar is used to indicate temporary states and locations. If the general rule doesn´t suffice, think of the acronym PLACE, which stands for Position,Location, Action, Condition, and Emotion.


Yo estoy

Tú estás

Él, Ella está

Nosotros estamos

Ellos,ellas, ustedes están

1. Position

Position is the physical position or posture a person or thing is in.

  • Mi abuela está sentada. (My grandmother is sitting down/seated.)
  • Yo estaba acostada cuando me llamaste. (I was lying down when you called me.)

2. Location

The location of someone or something describes where it is permanently, temporarily, actually, or conceptually.

  • El baño está a la derecha de la sala. (The bathroom is to the right of the living room.)
  • Estamos en el café ahora y estarémos en el cine en 20 minutos. (We are at the café right now and we will be at the movie theatre in 20 minutes.)
  • Mi abuelo está en la luna. (My grandfather is out of it/lost.)

Exception for Parties

This is a big one: The location of an event or party is described using SER. Not ESTAR!

  • La fiesta es en mi casa. (The party is at my house.)

3. Action

Estar is used to describe an ongoing action using the present progressive tense.

  • Estoy lavando los platos sucios. (I am washing the dirty dishes.)
  • Estamos leyendo los periódicos. (We are reading the newspapers.)
  • Mi bisabuelo está muerto. (My great-grandfather is dead.)

Death is Ongoing Action

In Spanish, death is seen as an ongoing action, not a permanent state, thus you use the verb estar and not ser.

4. Condition

Physical and mental conditions are described using estar.

  • Estoy tan cansada esta mañana. (I am so tired this morning.)
  • Mis niños están enfermos hoy. (My children are sick today.)
  • Mi madre está un poca loca. (My mother is (acting) a little crazy.)

5. Emotion

How a person is feeling at a certain moment is described using estar.

  • Estoy triste. (I am sad.)
  • Ella está contenta porque recibió unas flores de su novio. (She is happy because she received some flowers from her boyfriend.)

Ser and Estar seen from a different angle

There are some words that can be used with both ser and estar, but take on different meanings depending on the verb. Below you will find a chart with both forms and their meanings in English.

Ser Estar
ser aburrido to be boring estar aburrido to be bored
ser bueno to be good estar bueno to be tasty/attractive
ser cansado to be a tiring person estar cansado to be tired
ser grave to be serious estar grave to be seriously ill
ser listo to be clever estar listo to be ready
ser malo to be bad estar malo to be ill
ser orgulloso to be coneited or vain estar orgulloso to be proud
ser moreno to be dark-skinned estar moreno to be tanned
ser pálido to be pale skinned estar pálido to be pale
ser pesado to be heavy estar pesado to be tiresome
ser rico to be rich estar rico to be tasty
ser seguro to be safe estar seguro to be certain
ser verde to be green estar verde to be unripe
ser viejo to be old estar viejo to look old
ser vivo to be sharp estar vivo to be alive

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