Grammar 101: Ser vs Estar = to be


There are curiously 2 verbs meaning “to be” in Spanish. This is a point of much confusion, especially from English learners as there are effectively 2 ways of saying I AM, YOU ARE etc. Here is a rough outline to which one should be used and when.

Ser – to be (permanent)
Soy – I am
Eres – You are
Es – he/she/it is
Somos – We are
Sois – You are (plural)
Son – The are

These forms are used for permanent descriptions and states. Like your nationality, job, height and physical description, permanent qualities like the colour of something and more.
e.g.
Soy escocés – I am Scottish
Soy alto – I am tall
Soy inteligente – I am smart
Soy negro – I am black
Soy profesor – I am a teacher

Estar – to be (temporary / location)
Estoy – I am
Estás – you are
Está – he/she/it is
Estamos – we are
Estáis – you are (plural)
Están – they are

These forms are used when discussing the location of something. Regardless of whether you feel it is there permanently or not. Location is always with ESTAR.
e.g. Barcelona está en España – Barcelona is in Spain.

Otherwise, barring a few exceptions, ESTAR is used for temporary conditions, being angry, tired, ill, ready, well. Oddly, it is used for being dead (Está muerto – He is dead) and being married (Estoy casado – I am married). Says a lot about Spanish mentality!!

e.g.
Estoy enfermo – I am ill
Estoy bien – I am well
Estoy enfadado – I am angry
Estoy cansado – I am tired

Choosing between the two.
Sometimes it requires skill to choose between the two. Compare the following examples.
1) Estoy enfermo – I am ill (sick) {I’ll be better soon}
2) Soy enfermo – I am ill (terminally) {I’m not getting better}

or:-
1) Eres guapa – You are gorgeous (always, even without make-up)
2) Estás guapa – You are gorgeous (right now, in that dress)
Careful, this use if mis-understood could merit a slap!

Also some words mean completely different things when used with the two different verbs:
1) Soy listo – I am clever
2) Estoy listo – I am ready

With practice comes perfection so use them for yourself and experiment. A Spanish speaker will almost always understand regardless which you use so don’t be scared to make mistakes.

N.B. As in Spanish Lesson 7 – TENER some expressions that are I AM… in English don’t need either of these forms, such as saying your age, if you’re hot, cold, sleepy, etc.
Refer to that unit for a reminder.
Tengo 12 años – I am 12
Tengo frío – I am cold
Tengo sueño – I am sleepy

¡Hasta entonces!

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