Using the Spanish Verb ‘Ser’

Don't confuse this common verb for "to be" should with "estar"

Argentina sports fans
Somos de Argentina. (We are from Argentina.).

Creative WO LatinContent / Gilaimages / Getty Images

"Ser" can be a challenging verb for Spanish students because it is usually translated as "to be," as is the verb "estar." Although they can usually be translated the same way, "ser" and "estar" are distinct verbs with different meanings. With few exceptions, you can't substitute one for the other.

Complicating matters, "ser" has many conjugated forms that don't look like they could be related to the original verb. Examples include "es" (he/she/it is), "eran" (they were), and "fuiste" (you were). "Ser" is frequently used in describing innate (and thus often fixed) qualities of a person or thing.

Using "Ser" to Indicate Existence

At its simplest, ser is used merely to indicate that something exists. This usage of "ser" should not be confused with "hay," which is used to mean "there is." "Ser" is not used in this way to indicate existence in a particular location, as follows:

  • Ser o no ser, esa es la pregunta. > To be or not to be, that is the question.
  • Pienso, luego soy. > I think, therefore I am.

Using "Ser" to Indicate Equivalence

Ser is used to join two concepts or identities that are seen as being the same thing. If the subject of "ser" is understood by the context, it does not need to be explicitly stated.

  • Este es el nuevo modelo. > This is the new model.
  • La causa de la guerra era el temor de la libertad de las colonias. > The cause of the war was fear of the colonies' freedom.
  • Lo importante no es la idea, sino cómo la ejecutas. > The important thing is not the idea but how you execute it.
  • Será mi casa. > It will be my house.

Using "Ser" With Adjectives for Inherent, Innate, or Essential Characteristics

"Ser" is used to describe the essential nature of something, not how something might be at a particular moment.

  • La casa es grande. > The house is big.
  • Soy feliz. > I am happy by nature.
  • Las hormigas son negras. > Ants are black.
  • La nieve es fría. > Snow is cold.

This use sometimes contrasts with that of "estar." For example, "Estoy feliz" might convey the meaning of "I am happy at the moment." In this case, happiness isn't an inherent quality but something fleeting.

Using "Ser" to Indicate Origin, Nature, or Identity

As with innate characteristics, "ser" is used in referring to categories that persons or things belong to, such as their occupations, what something is made from, the place where someone or something lives or is from, and a person's religious or ethnic identity. Note that while such qualities can change over time, they generally can be considered part of that person's nature at the time of the statement.

  • Somos de Argentina. > We are from Argentina.
  • No soy marinero, soy capitán. > I am not a mariner, I am a captain.
  • Es Pablo. > He is Paul.
  • Los billetes son de papel. > The bills are made of paper.
  • Espero que no seas de esas personas. > I hope you're not one of those people.
  • El papa es católico. > The pope is Catholic.
  • Su madre es joven. > Her mother is young.
  • El rol del actor fue un viaje ida y vuelta al pasado. > The actor's role was a round-trip trip to the past.
  • Mi amiga es muy inteligente. > My friend is very smart.

Using "Ser" to Indicate Possession or Ownership

The possession or ownership can be literal or figurative:

  • El coche es mío. > The car is mine.
  • Es mi casa. > It is my house.
  • El siglo XXI es de China. > The 21st century belongs to China.

Using "Ser" to Form the Passive Voice

Use of a "to be" verb with a past participle to form the passive voice is structured as in English but is much less common.

  • La canción fue oída. > The song was heard.
  • Son usados para comer. > They are used for eating.
  • El gobernador fue arrestado en su propia casa. > The governor was arrested in his own home.

Using "Ser" to Tell Time

Telling time typically follows this pattern:

  • Es la una. > It is 1 o'clock.
  • Son las dos. > It is 2 o'clock.
  • Era la tarde de un domingo típico. > It was a typical Sunday afternoon.
  • La hora local del encuentro será las cuatro de la tarde. > The local time of the meeting will be 4 p.m.

Using "Ser" to Tell Where an Event Occurs

Although "estar" is used for direct statements of location, "ser" is used for the location of events.

  • El concierto es en la playa. > The concert is on the beach.
  • La fiesta será en mi casa. > The party will be at my house.

Using "Ser" in Impersonal Statements

Impersonal statements in English typically begin with "it" referring to a concept rather than a concrete thing. In Spanish, the subject isn't explicitly stated, so the sentence can begin with a form of "ser."

  • Es importante. > It is important.
  • Será mi elección. > It will be my choice.
  • Fue difícil pero necesario. > It was difficult but necessary.
  • Es sorprendente que no puedas hacerlo. > It is surprising that you can't do it.