Two Verbs Meaning ‘To Be’: ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar’

Distinction often involves nature vs. temporary state

sleepy woman está cansada
Está cansada. (She is tired.).

Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

There are few things more confusing for beginning Spanish students than learning the differences between ser and estar. After all, they both mean "to be" in English.

Differences Between Ser and Estar

One way to think of the differences between ser and estar is to think of ser as the "passive" verb and estar as the "active" one. (The terms aren't being used in a grammatical sense here.) Ser tells you what something is, the nature of its being, while estar refers more to what something does.

You might use soy (the first-person present of ser, meaning "I am") to explain who or what you are, but you'd use estoy (the first-person present of estar) to tell what you are being or doing.

For example, you might say, "Estoy enfermo" for "I am sick." That would indicate that you are sick at the moment. But it doesn't tell anyone what you are. Now if you were to say, "Soy enfermo," that would have a different meaning entirely. That would refer to who you are, to the nature of your being. We might translate that as "I am a sick person" or "I am sickly."

Note similar differences in these examples:

  • Estoy cansado. (I am tired.) Soy cansado. (I am a tired person. My nature is to be tired)
  • Estoy feliz. (I'm happy now.) Soy feliz. (I am happy by nature. I am a happy person.)
  • Está callada. (She's being quiet.) Es callada. (She's introverted. She's naturally a quiet person.)
  • No estoy lista. (I'm not ready.) No soy lista. (I'm not a quick thinker.)

    Another Approach to Ser vs. Estar

    Another way of thinking about the two verbs is to think of ser as being roughly equivalent to "equals." Another approach is that estar often refers to a temporary condition, while ser frequently refers to a permanent condition. But there are exceptions.

    Among the major exceptions to the above way of thinking is that ser is used in expressions of time, such as "Son las dos de la tarde" for "It's 2 p.m." Also, we use estar to indicate someone has died — quite a permanent condition: Está muerto, he is dead.

    Along that line, estar is used to indicate location. Estoy en casa. (I am at home.) But, soy de México. (I am from Mexico.) Ser, however, is used for the location of events: La boda es en Nuevo Hampshire. (The wedding is in New Hampshire.)

    There are also a few idiomatic expressions that simply need to be learned: La manzana es verde. (The apple is green.) La manzana está verde. (The apple is unripe.) Está muy bien la comida. (The meal tastes very good).

    Note that sometimes estar is often modified by an adverb such as bien rather than an adjective: Estoy bien. (I'm fine.)

    Although rare, there are a few situations where you can use either ser or estar. A married man describing his marital status could say either "Soy casado" or "Estoy casado." He might be more likely to use soy because he considers being married as part of his identity, although he might use estoy to indicate that he had been married recently.

    Present Conjugation of Ser and Estar

    Both ser and estar are irregularly conjugated. Here's a chart of the indicative present tense:

    PronombreSerEstar
    Yosoyestoy
    eresestás
    Él, ella, ustedesestá
    Nosotrossomosestamos
    Vosotrossoisestáis
    Ellos, ellas, ustedessonestán

    Sample Sentences

    Susana es atenta y con buena comunicación.

    (Susana is thoughtful with good communication skills. Ser is used with a personal quality.)

    Susana está atenta a la situación de su amiga. (Susana is attentive to her friend's situation. Estar is being used to characterize behavior.)

    Roberto es nervioso como mi hermano. (Roberto is as nervous of a person as my brother is. Ser is used here for describing what kind of person someone is.)

    Roberto está tan nervioso como mi hermano. (Robert is as nervous as my brother is now. Estar is used for an emotional state that is independent of personal qualities.)

    Quick Takeaways

    • Ser and estar are the two verbs most frequently used as the equivalent of the English "to be."
    • Ser typically is used in describing the nature of someone or something.
    • Estar typically is used in referring to a state of being that isn't necessarily innate.