Using 'Ser'

Common Verb for 'To Be' Shouldn't Be Confused With 'Estar'

Money from Mexico and Central America
Los billetes son de papel. (The bills are made of paper.). Photo by Fernando Reyes Palencia; Creative Commons license.

Although it is an extremely common verb, ser can be confusing for many Spanish students because it is usually translated as "to be," same as the verb estar. Although they can often be translated the same way, ser and estar are distinct verbs with distinct meanings and are seldom synonymous.

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

Using Ser To Indicate Existence

This usage of ser should not be confused with hay, which is used to mean "there is."

  • 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 With Adjectives for Inherent, Innate or Essential Characteristics

This typically means 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.

Using Ser To Indicate Origin, Nature or Identity

Examples include people's occupations, what something is made from, the place where someone 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.

  • Soy de Argentina. I am 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.
  • El papa es católico. The pope is Catholic.
  • Su madre es joven. Her mother is young.
  • 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

Such use of a "to be" verb with past participles to form the passive voice is much less common in Spanish than it is in English.

  • 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.

Using Ser To Tell Where an Event Occurs

Although estar is usually 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.
  • Es mi elección. It's 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.