What’s the difference between “ser” and “estar”?

Hamlet with skull
"¿Ser... o estar?"

The verb ‘to be’ in English can translate into either “ser” or “estar” in Spanish, depending on the surrounding context.

Generally speaking1, the verb “ser” in Spanish is used for things that are inherently part of others, or describe their essence. For example, the phrase ‘I am human’ would translate into “yo soy humano”, since the quality of being human is part of my essence… I can’t stop being human at will. This also applies in less obvious cases, like the phrase ‘I am a dentist’. This would translate to “Yo soy dentista”, even though being a dentist is not part of my essence. It is, however, a rather permanent state, since once you earn the corresponding degree, you are a dentist whether you work as one or not.

On the other hand, “estar” is used for transitory states. For example, ‘I am sad’ would translate to “Estoy triste”. Sadness is a mood, and as such it is transitory in nature… I could be sad right now, but happy again in a couple of hours or a couple of days. However, if you talk about someone’s habitual mood, you would switch to using “ser”, for example ‘He is a happy person’ would translate to “Él es una persona feliz”. Even though his mood wouldn’t strictly be part of his essence, the fact that he is habitually in that mood may make it seem like it is, hence the use of “ser”.

There are several other peculiarities in the use of both verbs, but this general guideline should be enough to help you get the usage right most of the time. I will probably delve into more details in future blog posts.

This is a great example of how languages carry within themselves a whole way to view reality, and that’s why words don’t usually have one-to-one equivalents from one language to another.

Tell me

Is there any other particular verb (or pair of verbs) that give you a hard time? which ones? Let me know in the comments. You can also send me a message if you prefer.

Also, check out the self-study video course on pronunciation I offer. There’s also a free lesson you can watch to see if you like how I explain things.

See you next time!

Footnotes

  1. As with most language-related rules, there are a bunch of exceptions

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