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Ser and Estar – the Verbs 'To Be' in Spanish, Their Conjugation, Rules and Uses

Updated on June 12, 2011

The Spanish language has two forms of the English verb 'to be', so that, whereas in English, we only have one type of 'being' – being from a country, being a redhead, being hungry or being in a restaurant are all described using the same vocabulary, in Spanish they have ways of differentiating between different types of 'being'.

In English, the verb 'to be' is irregular. That means that it is conjugated differently to normal verbs, which are the same in all persons except the third person singular, whereby usually an -s is added (he runs, for example). It is conjugated as follows:

I am

you are

he/she/it is

we are

you all are

they are

In Spanish, too, the verbs are irregular, and conjugated differently to normal rules of Spanish verbs.

Conjugation of the two verbs ser and estar


The first form of the verb 'to be' is the Spanish verb SER, which is conjugated in the present tense as follows:

(yo) soy

(tu) eres

(el/ella) es

(nosotros) somos

(vosotros) sois

(ellos/ellas) son


The second verb is ESTAR, and this one is conjugated in the present tense as follows:

(yo) estoy

(tu) estás

(el/ella) está

(nosotros) estamos

(vosotros) estáis

(ellos/ellas) están

How and when the verbs are used


This is obviously not a rule where every case follows, but an easy way to remember when to use ser or estar when first starting out with the basics of the Spanish language is that ser is used when characteristics are permanent (he is a sociable boy or he is from the US), and estar is used in temporary situations (e.g. I am hungry or I am in Wales).

Some examples of this rule:

Estoy feliz – I am happy. This uses estar because being happy is an emotional state and therefore subject to change.

Soy de Francia – I am from France. If a person is born in France then they are never going to be born from anywhere else, so this uses the verb ser.

Estamos en la biblioteca – we are in the library. It is doubtful that anyone would remain in the library permanently, so this uses estar.

Eres hermosa – you are beautiful. Beauty is an inherent trait and someone is generally assumed to be beautiful forever.

Son rubios – they have blond hair.

As with all rules, there are exceptions and one exception of the permanent versus temporary association is when dealing with time itself. If you ask someone what the time is, or what day it is, you would use the ser verb, despite time being an ever-changing variable.

¿Qué hora es?.......................................what time is it?

Son las dos horas...................................it is two o'clock (in the morning).

Hoy es martes........................................today it is Tuesday.

Hoy es la navidad..................................today is Christmas Day.

Another exception is with place, which is always viewed in the 'temporary' sense, and always uses the verb estar. When discussing where someone is, it is obvious you would use estar, but even when talking about where one place is in relation to another, you would use the verb estar.

¿Dondé estás?.........................................where are you?

¿Dondé está los aseos?............................where are the toilets?

Los aseos están al fundo..........................the toilets are at the back

¿Dondé está Francia?...............................where is France?

Francia está en el centro de europa...........France is in the middle of Europe

The deceased


People or animals that have died are also described using estar, rather than ser, despite death being a permanent state. The history here is that because Spain is a Latinate country and therefore predominantly catholic, death is not considered a permanent state because Jesus was resurrected.

Está muerte – he or she is dead

Está murió – he or she died

It is unlikely, except in the case of fictional works, that you would use the verb morir (to die) in either the first or second person.

Marital status

Marital status is considered permanent in Spanish and thus uses the ser verb 'to be'.

Soy casado/a – I am married

Es soltera – she is single

Sois juntos – you (pair) are together

Other uses of ser and estar

Ser is used when dealing with:

Occupation

Soy abogada – I'm a lawyer

Religious views

Eres catolico – you are catholic

Political views

Soy en apoyo del socialismo – I support socialism

Ownership of something

El coche es mio – It's my car

Family kinship

Es mi hermana – she's my sister

Estar is used in situations such as:

The condition of something

La pera está verde – the pear is unripe

Idiomatic expressions

Estoy de acuerdo contigo – I agree with you

Another general idea of determining whether to use ser or estar is whether a noun or an adjective follows the verb.

For example if a noun follows a verb immediately, without any article or filler word, then ser is used.

Sara es enfermera – Sara is a nurse

Mis hijos son rubios – my children have blond hair

Es viernes – it's Friday

The verbs ser and estar are quite complicated to understand at first, particularly for English speakers, who are used to only a single verb 'to be', but with practice it does become easier to understand and use the verbs correctly.

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    • Second Language profile image

      Anita Rai 

      5 years ago

      I used to get confused about ser and estar, but then sort of learned intuitively which to use.

      However, later I heard Michael Thomas explain it in the best way I ever heard: Estar means "to be in a state", while "ser" is to be (in a fundamental sense). That helped me a lot.

    • profile image

      rthompson 

      5 years ago

      quite useful. perhaps you can include the past and future tenses of ser and estar next time:)

    • platinumOwl4 profile image

      platinumOwl4 

      6 years ago

      Thank you very much for clarifying the difference between soy and estoy. I am struggling with Spanish. I must learn to read and speak this language so much history is buried in plain sight. If I could only read and speak the language. Again thanks.

    • htodd profile image

      htodd 

      6 years ago from United States

      Thanks for the great post...Nice post

    • JT Walters profile image

      JT Walters 

      7 years ago from Florida

      This is a great article. I speak Spanish but didn't understand why I was conjugating. I just did. This is a great Spanish lesson. If only we could be practicing on the Beach in Spain with a San Migeul (SP?):) Thumbs Up!!

    • flagostomos profile image

      flagostomos 

      7 years ago from Washington, United States

      I always remembered from Spanish Class HELP. Health Emotion Location Present-progressive for estar. But it took me a long time to get used to using estar for things like death and married. Spanish is so much fun lol.

    • Eloy Pinedo profile image

      Eloy Pinedo 

      7 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Very useful hub.

      It's great to see native English speakers taking up Spanish. I have had the opportunity to teach Spanish to Australians, and they pick it up real fast. I hope you keep the motivation to learn Spanish.

    • FishAreFriends profile image

      FishAreFriends 

      7 years ago from Colorado

      When I was little I dropped out of spanish because my teacher never taught us anything, and I was discouraged. Now, if I had something like this to learn from I might have stayed in spanish...

      Cool hub, maybe I will learn again some time!

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