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.
Table of Contents:
- Conjugating ser and estar.
- ser (present tense)
- ser (past tense)
- estar (present tense)
- estar (past tense)
- ser use cases
- Common mistakes when using ser
- estar use cases
- Common mistakes when using estar
- The present subjunctive
- ser conjugation
- estar conjugation
- When to use present subjunctive ser
- When to use present subjunctive estar
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
|Person||Ser (present tense)||English translation|
|Vosotros/vosotras||Sois||You (all) are|
Past tense – ser
|Person||Ser (Past tense)||English translation|
|Simple past||Imperfect past|
|Vosotros/vosotras||Fuisteis||Erais||You (all) were|
Present tense – estar
|Person||Estar (Present tense)||English translation|
|Vosotros/vosotras||Estáis||You (all) are|
Past tense – estar
|Person||Estar (Past tense)||English translation|
|Simple past||Imperfect past|
|Vosotros/vosotras||Estuvisteis||Estabais||You (all) 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.
El martes que viene será el doce de marzo.
We also use ser when describing a person’s occupation, as well as the essential characteristics of a person.
Juan es médico.
Lucía es honesta.
Ser is used for telling the time.
Es la una.
Son las cinco y cuarto.
We also use it to describe a person’s nationality or country of origin.
¿De dónde eres?
Soy de España.
And we use ser when describing a person’s relationship with someone.
Dolores es la madre de Rocío.
Sofía es la hermana de Julia.
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:
|D||day or date|
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.
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.
Son las seis en punto.
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.
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?
To respond, we would say:
Soy de los Estados Unidos.
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.
Antonio está en casa.
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.
Las montañas están al noreste de la playa.
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.
Lucas está tirando la basura.
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.
Estás mucho mejor que antes. Me alegro mucho.
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.
Me parece que estás cansado. Tienes que dormir ahora.
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:
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.
Whereas if they are suffering from depression, we would say:
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.
or for instance:
La casa está en las afueras.
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.
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.
La tarjeta de crédito también estaba en la mesa, pero la perdió.
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
|Person||Ser (Present subjunctive)||English translation|
|Vosotros/vosotras||Seáis||You (all) are|
Present subjunctive estar
|Person||Estar (Present subjunctive)||English translation|
|Vosotros/vosotras||Estéis||You (all) 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.