That is the Question

By Tamara Mathov

When you are a Spanish student, one of the first things you learn is the difference between Ser and Estar, both translation of the verb “to be”.

This word is hard to translate because in different languages it has different scopes. In Spanish, for instance, this concept is a little bit more restricted than in English. Learning languages is less about memorizing words and more about learning to see the world differently. Once you understand Ser vs Estar, you’ll be a step closer to immersing yourself in the Spanish worldview.

Philosophically, “to be” is probably the most interesting verb in existence. It has been pondered by thinkers and artists from all over the world, in times both past and present.  But practically speaking, it can seem like a real pain-in-the-you-know-where.

Luckily, the difference between Ser vs Estar can be reduced to a few simple rules.


A fresh start

Before getting into the real deal, we must clarify a few important misconceptions.

First, it is very important to eradicate some old vices and stop the nonsense: “ser” is not necessarily permanent and “estar” is not temporary either. This bad advice has spread like wildfire and is causing a lot of confusion amongst Spanish students. Unlearning wrong concepts can be a challenge, but it is definitely doable. So I encourage you to forget everything you know about Ser and Estar and start from scratch.

Some teachers believe that language students shouldn’t be exposed to technical grammar concepts, but the truth is that some word-type knowledge would simplify Ser vs Estar a lot. Nothing too extravagant, just being able to distinguish a noun from an adjective and a verb will make your life much simpler. Believe me, learning these is much easier than memorizing random contexts where Ser and Estar would be used. For those that feel a little clumsy in this area, I’ll make sure I clarify these grammar concepts.

The last thing to consider is that Ser and Estar have some exclusive uses and two shared uses. “Exclusive” uses mean that in a certain situation only one of these two words would be correct and the other one won’t be. “Shared uses” mean that both are correct, but they mean different things. In this case, you must figure out what do you want to say in order to choose the proper word.


Exclusive use of SER

What and Who: SER + NOUN

Whenever the verb “to be” is followed by a noun, we will use “Ser”.

Yes, it’s that simple.

What are nouns? Nouns are names that identify places, people, things and ideas. They can be concrete, such as “house”, or abstract, such as “love”; they can also be common, as “writer” or proper, as “Hemingway”. While common nouns are generic, proper nouns are specific.

Every time that one of these words come after the verb “to be”, in Spanish we will use “Ser”. It doesn’t matter if you will be a student for ten years or ten minutes. Since “student” is a noun, you will always use “Ser”.

We can have other words in the middle such as articles (el, la, un, una), adjectives or adverbs and adjectives. But these words in between will always give more information about the noun.

Hemingway es mi escritor favorito (Hemingway is my favorite writer)

Esta es mi casa (This is my house)

Eres una muy buena estudiante (You are a very good student)

Soy tu mejor amigo (I am your best friend)

If you can ask the question “What?” or “Who?” then the verb will be ser:

Who is Hemingway?: he is my favorite writer

What is this?: This is my house

What or who are you?: A very good student

Who am I?: I am your best friend


Exclusive uses of ESTAR

1) Where: ESTAR + EN + PLACE

Every time that we refer to the location of something or someone we will use the verb “estar” followed by the preposition “en” and a noun that names a place.

La carne está en la heladera (The meat is in the fridge)

Josefa y Martín están en mi casa (Josefa and Martin are in my house)

Estoy en Japón de vacaciones (I’m on vacation in Japan).

All in all, if we can ask the question “Where?” and the answer will involve “Estar”.

Where is the meat? It is in the fridge.

Where are Josefa and Martín? They are in my house.

Where are you? I’m on vacation in Japan.

Keep in mind that where things are located is different from where someone or something is from and where an event takes place. These can be considered exceptions to the rule. “To be from” a place and for an event “to take place” somewhere, both require “Ser”.

Soy de Estados Unidos (I’m from the United States)

La fiesta es en mi casa (The party is in my house)

Soy de Japón pero ahora estoy en Chile (I’m from Japan but now I am in Chile)

El festival es en el parque que está cerca de tu casa (The festival is near the park that is close to your house)

2) What someone is doing: ESTAR + GERUND 

In English, gerunds are verbs that finish with “-ing”, such as drawing, sleeping or cooking. In Spanish, these words have two similar suffixes: “-endo” and “-ando” (dibujando, durmiendo, cocinando).

We use “to be” and a gerund to describe extended actions. If they are in the present tense, it means that the action is happening at the moment of speech. In other tenses, it means that they are / were ongoing during a certain period of time. For this structure, we will always use “Estar”. No exceptions.

Josefa estaba viviendo en mi casa (Josefa was living in my house)

Estoy yendo a la oficina (I’m going to the office)

Estan cantando (They are singing)

The question “What is (someone) doing?” will always be answered with “estar”.

What was Josefa doing? She was living in my house

What are you doing? I am going to the office.

What are they doing? They are singing.


Shared uses of SER and ESTAR


When we have an adjective after “to be” is when things start to get blurry and we need to start paying attention to the shades of meanings that we are looking for.

Adjectives are words that describe or clarify nouns, in other words, they provide information about a noun, such as its size, looks, purpose, origin, etc. “Tall”, “intelligent”, “useful” are all adjectives.

Remember that most adjectives can be used with both “ser” and “estar”, and knowing which verb to choose depends on what we want to say.

I’m quite sure that the misleading belief of “Ser” being permanent and “Estar” being temporary comes from sentences where they are followed by adjectives. However, I would suggest that you think of it as feelings and conditions (estar) vs characteristics (ser).

How someone is feeling or in what condition something is: Estar + adjectives

When we want to state how someone is feeling or in what condition something is, we will always use “Estar”. These adjectives will be more contextual or situational than those used after “Ser”.

La casa está sucia (the house is dirty)

Están muy tristes hoy (they are very sad today)

Estoy cansada de estudiar (I’m tired of studying)

What someone or something is like: SER + CHARACTERISTICS

Ser is used with adjectives that distinguish and characterize nouns. For example, they are characteristics that would be useful to identify someone in a crowd or make a particular item stand out. These are less situational and more essential descriptions. But remember: these are not necessarily permanent.

We can say something like: “Marío era divertido pero ahora es un poco aburrido” (Mario used to be fun but now he’s a little bit boring). People and things can often change their characteristics.

Another example could be: Josefa es muy alegre pero hoy está triste porque perdió la billetera (Josefa is very cheerful but she is sad today because she lost her wallet). So, being cheerful is an inherent characteristic of hers, therefore we use “Ser”. However, because of the context, she is feeling sad, and here we need “Estar”.

Let’s see some more:

María es muy alta (María is very tall)

Josefa y María son muy divertidas, siempre se están riendo (Josefa and Maria are very fun, they are always laughing)

Soy muy timida (I am very shy)


Participles are non-conjugated verbs. This means that they don’t contain information on who or what is performing or experimenting the verb. “Seen”, “painted” and “done” are English examples of these types of words. Since they don’t provide information on the person or the tense, we need an extra verb, called auxiliary. “To be” is one of the verbs that go together with participles, as we can see in examples like “It is done”, “you are tired” and “those were painted by him”.

Participles after “Estar” are considered adjectives because they describe a certain aspect of the noun; on the other hand, participles after “Ser” are considered verbs because they refer to an action performed. This difference is very subtle, so we are splitting the hairs on this one.

The action itself: SER + PARTICIPLE

When we want to place an emphasis on the action that was carried out, we use “Ser”. These sentences answer to the question “What was done?”

El libro fue escrito en español (the book was written in Spanish)

La mesa fue hecha a medida (the table was custom made)

In these examples, we are describing what actions were taken. “A medida” or “en español” are telling us how something was done.


While “ser” focuses on the action, the participle after “Estar” behaves like an adjective, it adds a description to the noun. Its peculiarity is that the emphasis is not put on the action itself but in the result of that action. That is to say that an action results in a characteristic.

El libro estaba escrito en español (The book is written in Spanish)

La mesa estaba hecha a medida (The table is custom made)

In these examples, “en español” and “hecha a medida” are adjectives, and as adjectives they describe the noun, in other words, how something is.


Let’s get to work!

Now that we have covered the differences between Ser vs Estar, take a moment to read this short text and make sure you understand why we use Ser vs Estar in each case. This cheat sheet below might be useful to double check your intuition!

Josefa es (1) de Uruguay pero siempre está (2) viajando. Ahora mismo está (3) en Bogotá. Dice que es (4) un ciudad muy bonita pero que está (5) muy cansada porque estuvo (6) caminando mucho. Una de sus cosas favoritas es (7) la catedral de sal. Un lugar oscuro y frío que, como dice su nombre, está (8) hecho de sal, pero tambien tiene mucho mármol. La catedral fue (9) construida dentro de las montañas por un arquitecto famoso en los años 50. Josefa dice que es (10) un lugar muy extraño, pero también muy especial.

Josefa is from Uruguay but she is always traveling. Right now she is in Bogota. She says that it is a very beautiful city, but she is very tired because she was walking a lot. One of her favorite things is the Salt Cathedral. A dark and cold place that, as its name shows, is made of salt, but also has a lot of marble. The cathedral was built inside the mountains by a famous architect during the ’50s. Josefa says that it is a very strange place, but also very special.

So? How was that?

Let’s go over it together:

  1. Es de Uruguay: since it refers to an origin, we use “Ser”. If this seems confusing, check the exceptions to “Where?”.
  2. Está viajando: progressive action. When we have a gerund, we always need “Estar”.
  3. Está en Bogotá: prototypical location reference.
  4. Es una ciudad muy bonita: Josefa believes that being beautiful is a characteristic of Bogota, not a circumstantial condition.
  5. Está muy cansada: being tired is a result of an action. She walked a lot, therefore she is tired now.
  6. Estuvo caminando mucho: another progressive action with a gerund.
  7. Una de sus cosas favoritas es la Catedral de sal: “la Catedral” (the Cathedral) is a noun, and when we have a noun we need “Ser”.
  8. Está hecho de sal: the cathedral is dark, cold and made of sal; as you can see, this comment works as an adjective, it a description of the cathedral and, at the same time, the result of an action.
  9. fue construida dentro de las montañas: here we use “Ser” plus a participle to refer to an action that was carried.
  10. es un lugar muy extraño: “lugar” is a name that refers to a place, therefore, a good example of nouns after “Ser”.

You did it! You can call your Spanish speaking friends and let them know that you’ve finally found the answers to your prayers: now Ser vs Estar is finally making sense.

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