Using 'Estar' and 'Haber' for 'There Is' and 'There Are'

English Phrases Can Be Ambiguous

cattle in Argentina
Hay vacas en Argentina. (There are cattle in Argentina.). Picturegarden/Getty Images

It is often said that "there is" or "there are" is expressed in Spanish using the verb hay (a form of haber) — and indeed that is usually so. However, there are some instances where forms of the verb estar — typically está (singular) or están (plural) — should be used.

The difference is one in meaning:

  • Hay is used to refer to mere existence.
  • Está or están is used when describing a location.

As an example, examine this simple sentence: "There is a book." At least in writing, the English is ambiguous — the sentence could be phrased as "a book is there," meaning that a book is in a certain location.

Or could be interpreted as "A book exists." In Spanish a different verb would be used for each interpretation.

  • To say that the book is in a location, use a form of estar: El libro está allí. (The book is there.)
  • But to say it merely exists, use a form of haber, in this case hay: Hay un libro. (A book exists.)

Eliminating Ambiguity in Translating 'There'

The same principle applies in many other cases where the English might be ambiguous:

  • No hay dinero. (There isn't any money, because it doesn't exist.) El dinero no está. (The money exists, but it's not here.)
  • No hay profesor. (There's no teacher, meaning, for instance, that one hasn't been hired.) El profesor no está. (There's a teacher, but the teacher isn't here.)
  • Hay dos escuelas. (There are two schools, that is, two schools exist.) Dos escuelas están allí. (There are two schools, meaning, two schools are in the direction that is being pointed to.)
  • Hay vacas en Argentina. (There are cows in Argentina.) Las vacas están en Argentina. (The specific cows are there, in Argentina.)
  • Sólo hay una cosa importante. (There is only one important thing.) La cosa importante está en otro lado. (The important thing is on the other side. Here cosa refers to a specific object.)

    Abstract nouns, or nouns that don't refer to an object that can exist in a specific location, normally would not be used with estar, but with hay:

    • Hay muchos problemas. (There are many problems.)
    • No hay felicidad sin amor. (There is no happiness without love.)
    • Hay un montón de cosas que quiero decirte. (There is a pile of things I want to say to you.)
    • Hay dos tipos de dolor: el que te lastima y el que te cambia. (There are two kinds of pain: the kind that hurts you and the kind that changes you.)

    Estar vs. Haber in Other Tenses

    Although examples in the present indicative tense were used above, the same rules apply in other tenses and in the subjunctive mood.

    • Fui a su casa, pero no estaba. (I went to her house, but she wasn't there.)
    • No había transportación porque no compré un coche. (There was no transportation because I didn't buy a car.)
    • Si hubiera unicornios, la gente los verían. (If there were unicorns, people would see them.)
    • Quiero que haya paz en el mundo. (I want there to be peace in the world.)
    • No quiero que él esté allí. (I don't want him to be there.)

    A Similar Use of Ser

    When it is used to indicate mere existence, haber can be used only in the third person in standard Spanish. It is often possible to use ser in a similar way in the first- and second-person plural ("we" and "you," respectively).

    This use is especially common with numbers.

    • Somos seis. (There are six of us.)
    • Ya somos veinte en la clase. (Now there are 20 of us in the class.)
    • Son ustedes cinco hombres. (There are five of you men.)
    • Si sois siete, te ruego que me digas ¿cómo puede ser? (If there are seven of you, I beg that you tell me, how this can be?)