Ser o estar: ¡esa es la cuestión!

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Ser o estar: ¡esa es la cuestión!

Nearly every student of Spanish from time to time faces the dilemma: “Which one to use this time?!”
The fact that there is only one verb “be” in the English language makes the whole bit rather confusing.

There are two common ways to sort it out. The first one is to describe 30 typical usages of the verb “ser” and 20 of the verb”estar”. But some students find this information a bit difficult to digest.

The second way is to explain the difference between ser and estar “at one fell swoop”: one is for permanent things and the other is for temporary. This approach seems so understandable that it has leaked to some grammar books. The only problem with it: it's wrong.

Is “be dead” a permanent characteristic or temporary? In the Spanish language there is only one way to refer to the condition: “estar muerte.” Does that mean that people die just for a while? Whereas “be transient, temporary” is translated as “ser transitorio, temporal”. Is that supposed to be a permanent feature? Similar questions arise for almost each and every word. To remedy the situation we can try replacing “permanent” with “long-term” but other problems are bound to turn up: what can be more “long-term” than “be alive” that is “estar vivo”?

Let's try to give another – and, in our view, the only – correct rule.

To begin with, let's set apart distinct usage:

SER and ESTAR with nouns and adverbs

  • The verb "estar" cannot be used with nouns.

Es profesor. - He is a a teacher.
Somos españoles. - We are Spanish.
Es una niña. - She is (just) a girl.

And, as it always turns out with any rules, there are a couple of exceptions like the collocation “estar pez”

  • The verb "ser" cannot be used with adverbs.

Está lejos de aquí.  - It's a long way from here.
Está bien. - It's good.

Now, a tricky bit:

SER and ESTAR with adjectives

  • Used with adjectives ESTAR means a result of an action. For example:

Juan está muy alto. - John has shot up.

It's obvious that john is a boy that didn't use to be tall but has become tall.

Estás muy guapa. - You're looking great.

It's a comment about the here and now, some change in appearance.

Está vivo. - He is alive.

It's also a result of a certain action (birth) and so on.

  • SER with adjectives refers to inner characteristic, distinctive feature of an object. It's not supposed to be something permanent but we can distinguish the object using the feature. For example,

Juan es alto – John is tall.

Having such information we'll be looking for John in the crowd of tall people.

Ángel es muy simpático – Angel is really nice.

Having heard such a phrase we'll expect to get pleasure from meeting Agel. It doesn't mean that Angel cannot fly into a rage, or his personality cannot change sooner or later. But right now being nice is his distinctive feature, you can try and find Angel in a group of people using this characteristic.

So the difference between SER joven and ESTAR joven in

Mi madre ya no es joven, pero está muy joven – Your mother isn't young, but she looks young.

or SER delgada and ESTAR delgada in

Tu hermana, que es muy delgada, últimamente está un poco gorda – Your sister, who is really thin, has put on a few kilos lately

shouldn't be considered as “permanent/temporary” opposition. Both “be young” and “look young” are unfortunately temporary, transient. But the fact that someone looks young indicates that something has changed. The person has got fit, or they're wearing new smart clothes, new hairdo...

The phrase tu hermana está un poco gorda indicates changes in much the same way. The logical deduction from this that for any Spaniard will be: something has happened having change the habitual shape of her body.

To simplify the matter we can say that estar with an adjective means «being in a particular state, condition», whereas ser with an adjective refers to «a typical feature».

One more “tricky point”: ser and estar with adverbials of place and time

  • We use estar with the “subject-object”:

El mercado está enfrente. – The market is across (the road).
Juan y Ana estarán en su despacho. – John and Anna will be in their office.

  • We use ser with the “subject-event”:

El examen de español es en esta aula. – The exam in Spanish is in this classroom.
La boda de mi primo será mañana en el Ayuntamiento. – My cousin's wedding is at the city hall tomorrow.

The rule seems quite easy to follow but students hardly believe it. The thing is, you cannot find it in most manuals. At the beginning the rule is not mentioned for fear of overloading students but then, at the advanced level, they just forget to mention the rule.

And the last one: ser and estar with participles:

  • “Ser + Past Participle” construction is used to form the passive voice indicating an action being performed by another agent, the logical subject, usually introduced by the preposition por:

La ciudad fue fundada por el Rey Alfonso – The city was founded by (by whom? The logical subject) by King Alfonso.

You should bear in mind the fact that in the Spanish language the passive voice is not used as frequently as in English, just only in writing. Instead, Spaniards much prefer a reflexive verb construction with the pronoun se.

  • Estar with a (past) participle refers to much the same as estar with an adjective that is a result of an action, activity and should not be perceived as the passive voice :

La cena está servida – The dinner is served (everything is ready for dinner).

We hope our brief sketch help you to sort out these verbs. If you are still uncertain how to use them, don't get disappointed. Practice makes perfect. And the fact that the French, the Japanese, Russians, Italians and Germans find them desperately confusing might comfort you.

Autor/a Jorge Gelfand