Using the Spanish Verb ‘Ser’

Common verb for ‘to be’ shouldn’t be confused with ‘estar’

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

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

Just like "to be," ser comes in 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).

Here are the main uses of ser along with examples and translations:

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.

  • 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 1:00.)
  • Son las dos. (It is 2:00.)
  • 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.)

Key Takeaways

  • Although ser and estar are verbs meaning "to be," they have distinct meanings and uses and can seldom be interchanged.
  • The conjugation of ser is highly irregular.
  • Ser is frequently used in describing innate (and thus often fixed) qualities of a person or thing.