Ser vs Estar: Your Best Guide On Usage And Common Mistakes

Ser vs Estar: Your Best Guide On Usage And Common Mistakes

Getting your head around the differences between the Spanish verbs ser and estar can be challenging for new learners.

Even those studying at an higher levels can still make errors when selecting between these essential verbs!

Here’s the difference between ser and estar in a nutshell:

Ser describes what something is (its permanent state). Estar, on the other hand, describes how something is (its temporary state).

So why does distinguishing between ser and estar confuse people?

It’s because both of these verbs mean ‘to be’ in English. It can be tricky for non-native speakers to understand when to use ser and when to use estar.

There are some essential differences between the uses of these verbs that will give you clues as to when to use them. You’ll need to get used to these differences if you want to become a fluent Spanish speaker.

With the ser and estar usage examples below, you’ll quickly know which to use when having conversations with native speakers.

Conjugating ser and estar

If you are just getting started with these two verbs, you’ll know as a beginner that it’s easy to get confused when conjugating them.

That’s why Spanish language teachers always spend a lot of time teaching their students how to conjugate Spanish verbs, and why we’ve included some ser and estar conjugation examples here.

Take a quick look.

Present tense – ser

PersonSer (present tense)English translation
YoSoyI am
EresYou are
Él/ella/ustedEsHe/she/it is
Nosotros/nosotrasSomosWe are
Vosotros/vosotrasSoisYou (all) are
Ellos/ellas/ustedesSonThey are

Past tense – ser

PersonSer (Past tense)English translation
Simple pastImperfect past
YoFuiEraI was
FuisteErasYou were
Él/ella/ustedFueEraHe/she/it was
Nosotros/nosotrasFuimosÉramosWe were
Vosotros/vosotrasFuisteisEraisYou (all) were
Ellos/ellas/ustedesFueronEranThey were

Present tense – estar

PersonEstar (Present tense)English translation
YoEstoyI am
EstásYou are
Él/ella/ustedEstáHe/she/it is
Nosotros/nosotrasEstamosWe are
Vosotros/vosotrasEstáisYou (all) are
Ellos/ellas/ustedesEstánThey are

Past tense – estar

PersonEstar (Past tense)English translation
Simple pastImperfect past
YoEstuveEstabaI was
EstuvisteEstabasYou were
Él/ella/ustedEstuvoEstabaHe/she/it was
Nosotros/nosotrasEstuvimosEstabamosWe were
Vosotros/vosotrasEstuvisteisEstabaisYou (all) were
Ellos/ellas/ustedesEstuvieronEstabanThey were

When do we use the verb ser?

Although there are some exceptions, in Spanish we use the verb ser when describing the essential qualities or characteristics of a person or object. There are also various other usage rules which can help to indicate when ser is used.

For instance, we use the verb ser when we refer to the day or the date.

Hoy es martes.

It’s Tuesday today.

El martes que viene será el doce de marzo.

Next Tuesday it will be the 12th of March.

We also use ser when describing a person’s occupation, as well as the essential characteristics of a person.

Juan es médico.

Juan is a doctor.

Lucía es honesta.

Lucía is honest.

Ser is used for telling the time.

Es la una.

It’s one o’clock.

Son las cinco y cuarto.

It’s quarter past five.

We also use it to describe a person’s nationality or country of origin.

¿De dónde eres?

Where are you from?

Soy de España.

I’m from Spain.

And we use ser when describing a person’s relationship with someone.

Dolores es la madre de Rocío.

Dolores is Rocío’s mother.

Sofía es la hermana de Julia.

Sofía is Julia’s sister.

You can remember these uses of ser by using the acronym D.O.C.T.O.R. Each letter in this acronym indicates when you should use ser and the contexts it should be used in:

Dday or date
Ooccupation
Ccharacteristic
Ttime
Oorigin
Rrelationship

Common mistakes to avoid when using the verb ser

It’s easy to make mistakes when choosing between ser and estar. Here are some common errors to avoid.

1. Using estar, instead of ser, when describing occupations.

In Spanish, we don’t say La chica está un estudiante.

We always use the verb ser when describing occupations.

As an extra tip, we never use the article un when describing what we do for a living either. We would say:

La chica es estudiante.

The girl is a student.

2. Telling the time using estar instead of ser.

If someone asks you the time in Spanish, you should always use the verb ser when you respond.

Instead of saying Están seis y media, we would say:

Son las seis y media.

It’s six-thirty.

or:

Son las seis en punto.

It’s six o’clock

3. Identifying an object using estar instead of ser.

Say your friend asks you in Spanish to point out which car belongs to you. You shouldn’t respond using the verb estar.

In this case, we would use the verb ser:

Es el coche grande, cerca del parque.

It’s the big car, near the park.

4. Describing someone’s place of origin using estar instead of ser.

As your country of origin never changes, in Spanish we use the verb ser, not estar to describe where we are from. For example, someone might ask you:

¿De dónde eres?

Where are you from?

To respond, we would say:

Soy de los Estados Unidos.

I’m from the United States.

When do we use the verb estar?

We typically use the verb estar when describing the temporary characteristics of an object or person, or to express how someone feels at a particular moment in time.

Again, there are certain rules below that can clear up some of the confusion around using the verb estar.

For example, we use estar when referring to the position of an object or person.

La carpeta está en la estantería.

The folder is on the shelf.

Antonio está en casa.

Antonio is at home.

Estar is also used to describe the location of a place or to describe where something is.

El parque está en las afueras de la ciudad.

The park is on the outskirts of the city.

Las montañas están al noreste de la playa.

The mountains are to the northeast of the beach.

We also use estar when describing an action that someone is carrying out, or the action someone is doing.

El hijo de Diego y María está leyendo un libro.

Diego and María’s son is reading a book.

Lucas está tirando la basura.

Lucas is throwing out the trash/rubbish.

When describing a person’s condition, or referring to how they are in terms of their health, we use the verb estar.

¿Estás bien? Estabas muy enferma el otro día.

Are you okay? You were very sick the other day.

Estás mucho mejor que antes. Me alegro mucho.

You’re much better than before. I’m so glad.

And if we wanted to describe a person’s emotional state, we would also use the verb estar.

La chica está muy feliz porque sus padres le han comprado una muñeca.

The girl is very happy because her parents have bought her a doll.

Me parece que estás cansado. Tienes que dormir ahora.

It seems to me that you are tired. You have to sleep now.

You can remember the uses of estar by using the acronym P.L.A.C.E. Each letter in this acronym indicates when estar should be used and the contexts it should be used in:

Pposition
Llocation
Aaction
Ccondition
Eemotion

Common mistakes to avoid when using estar

1. Using ser, instead of estar when you intend to describe how a person is feeling in a specific moment in time.

It is technically correct to say, for example, that your friend es feliz (is happy).

As we have mentioned, if your friend is inherently happy all the time (or is an optimistic person), we would use the verb ser.

But it is an error to say that a person es triste if they are only sad for that particular moment. We would say él/ella está triste in this case.

Similarly, say a person is depressed in a specific moment in time (perhaps because their favourite football team has lost), we would say:

él/ella está deprimido/deprimida porque el Barca ha perdido.

He or she is depressed because Barcelona has lost.

Whereas if they are suffering from depression, we would say:

Tiene depression.

He/she has depression.

In this case, it’s an enfermedad (illness).

2. Using ser, instead of estar when describing the location of an object.

It’s very easy to get confused when choosing the right verb to describe where something is.

But, remember the acronym! When giving directions or, for instance, pointing out where the language school is, we would use the verb estar.

As opposed to saying La escuela es en el centro de la ciudad, we would say:

La escuela de idiomas está cerca del centro de la ciudad.

The school of languages is near the centre of the city.

or for instance:

La casa está en las afueras.

The house is on the outskirts.

3. Using ser, not estar when you mean to describe a person’s health.

If you want to tell your mum that your friend has been feeling unwell and looking pale for a couple of days, remember to use the verb estar in this case.

While you might use ser to refer to someone who is permanently pale, or very light-skinned, we use the verb estar to describe someone pale due to an illness.

Alicia estaba muy pálida durante muchas semanas. Ahora está bien.

Alicia was very pale for many weeks. Now she’s fine.

4. Using ser, instead of estar to describe the position of an object.

This is a similar error to using ser to describe an object’s location.

In Spanish, we use the verb estar when pointing out where an object is in relation to another object.

La llave está en la mesa.

The key is on the table.

La tarjeta de crédito también estaba en la mesa, pero la perdió.

The credit card was also on the table, but he lost it.

Using ser and estar for the present subjunctive

As well as the present and past tenses, there are a few more conjugations of the verbs ser and estar.

The subjunctive mood is one such example, which is usually studied at an intermediate level.

Here we’ve included the present subjunctive conjugations for the verbs ser and estar, and provided a few examples of each in context.

Present subjunctive ser

PersonSer (Present subjunctive)English translation
YoSeaI am
SeasYou are
Él/ella/ustedSeaHe/she/it is
Nosotros/nosotrasSeamosWe are
Vosotros/vosotrasSeáisYou (all) are
Ellos/ellas/ustedesSeanThey are

Present subjunctive estar

PersonEstar (Present subjunctive)English translation
YoEstéI am
EstésYou are
Él/ella/ustedEstéHe/she/it is
Nosotros/nosotrasEstemosWe are
Vosotros/vosotrasEstéisYou (all) are
Ellos/ellas/ustedesEsténThey are

When do we use the present subjunctive conjugations of ser?

When using ser in the subjunctive tense, don’t forget all you have learned about the present tense usages! We still use it to describe the day, to describe occupations, to describe characteristics, to tell the time, to talk about someone’s origin and to describe someone’s relationship with someone else. But the subjunctive conjugations of ser are reserved for a particular mood – to express wishes, desires, hopes or hypothetical situations.

Say, for instance, your mother wants you to be a teacher when you grow up. To express this in English, we would say:

Mi madre quiere que sea profesora.

My mum wants me to be a teacher.

This statement expresses a wish or hope and is also hypothetical. The mother wants her child to be a teacher when they grow up. It would be wrong to use the present tense verb soy in this case, because the hypothetical mood usually requires the subjunctive tense. It requires the verb ser because it refers to a profession.

It’s sometimes difficult to ‘feel’ the difference between the present tense and the subjunctive mood, but you’ll get the hang of it – it just takes a bit of practice.

But there are two clues we can use when deciding if the subjunctive verb ser is required.

  1. The verb ‘querer’ is used, which signals a wish or desire. Other verbs that indicate desire include esperar, escantar, gustar and alegrarse de. These verbs are frequently found in sentences that require the subjunctive tense.
  2. The conjunction que, which separates two subjects, is also an indication that the subjunctive should be used.

You might say, for example:

Quiero comprar un coche que sea pequeño y rápido.

I want to buy a car that’s small and fast.

This example uses un verbo de deseo (a verb that indicates desire) and the conjunction que, which signals the use of the subjunctive mood.

When do we use the present subjunctive conjugations of estar?

When using the present subjunctive conjugations of estar, try to remember everything you’ve learned about its present tense conjugations. It is still used to describe an object’s position, to describe the location of an object of building, to describe the action someone’s carrying out, to refer to someone’s condition or their emotions. But the subjunctive conjugations of the verb estar are reserved for hopes, wishes, desires and hypothetical situations.

For instance, if your best friend has just broken their leg, but are healing and feeling much better, you might say to them:

Me alegro que estés bien ahora.

I’m glad you’re okay now.

This sentence uses un verbo de deseo and the conjunction que, which means the subjunctive tense is required. It requires the verb estar and not ser because this sentence describes a condition and also refers to a person’s health.

Hopefully the difference between ser and estar is now clear

Spanish language teachers (and Spanish courses) spend a lot of time teaching the difference between ser and estar – that’s because it can be very tricky!

The key to finally grasping the difference is a combination of listening, completing verb exercises and putting it into practice when you have conversations with Spanish speakers.

You might find yourself being corrected from time to time in the beginning, but the more you listen and practice, the more you’ll notice which expressions require the verb ser and which require the verb estar.

Looking at examples in context and checking lists like this one can also be useful. Or find a handy Spanish mobile app for quick reference.

It can help you to consolidate your knowledge and confirm you’re using the verbs correctly.

Don’t forget – keep practising your verb conjugations too.

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
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