Two Verbs Meaning 'To Be': 'Ser' and 'Estar'

Distinction Often Involves Nature vs. Action

Red strawberries.
Las fresas son rojas. (Strawberries are red.). Photo by Paul Stein, licensed via Creative Commons.

There are few things more confusing for beginning Spanish students, at least those who have English as their first language, than learning the differences between ser and estar. After all, they both mean "to be" in English.

And since both verbs are frequently used, they are as irregular as can be. Who would think that fue would be the third-person preterite of ser?

When I think of the differences between ser and estar, I like to think of ser as the "passive" verb and estar as the "active" one.

(I'm not using the terms in a grammatical sense here.) Ser tells you what something is, the nature of its being, while estar refers more to what something does. I might use soy (the first-person present of ser) to tell you who or what I am, but I'd use estoy (the first-person present of estar) to tell you what I am being or doing.

Let me give you a few examples. I might say, "Estoy enfermo." That would tell you that I am being sick, that I am sick at the moment. But it doesn't tell you what I am. Now if I were to say, "Soy enfermo," that would have a different meaning entirely. That would refer to who I am, to the nature of my 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.
  • Estoy feliz, I'm happy now. Soy feliz, I am happy by nature.
  • Está callada, she's being quiet. Es callada, she's introverted.
  • No estoy listo, I'm not ready. No soy listo, I'm not a quick thinker.

One way of thinking about it is to think of ser as being roughly equivalent to "equals." Another way of thinking about it 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, although that comes naturally with time: 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 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. If you were to ask me about my marital status, I would be grammatically correct to answer with either "Soy casado" or "Estoy casado" to tell you I'm married. I'd be more likely to use soy because I consider being married as part of my identity, although I might use estoy to indicate that I had been married since I last saw you.


Present Conjugation of Ser and Estar

As I mentioned earlier, both ser and estar are irregularly conjugated. Here's a chart of the indicative present tense:

Él, ella, ustedesestá
Ellos, ellas, ustedessonestán