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Ser or Estar, to Be or to Be, That′s the Question We′re All Asking

How I Used Etymology and Word Association to Nail the Ser-Estar Conundrum Once and for All

Ser or estar? The debate goes all the way back to Latin!

Photo credit: Connie licensed cc by-sa 2.0

HomeBlogSer or Estar, to Be or to Be, That′s the Question We′re All Asking

If you’ve been learning Spanish for any length of time, I bet you’ve split your hair over whether to use ser or estar in your translations. Spanish, like many European tongues, has two very different equivalents for the English verb to be. And the two are far from interchangeable which makes for a great deal of frustration. Although both ser and estar translate into the same word in English, they have very distinct use-cases. There’s rules governing their usage and there’s plenty of them. You have one of the two options here: Either memorize those rules and recall them each time you’re presented with the choice, or memorize a bunch of acronyms to help remember those rules.

Both options come with their own pros and cons. Memorizing rules is a tedious process and not very efficient, time-wise. Also, you cannot translate instantly because you first have to recall the rules and then figure out which one of the dozens the use-case at hand satisfies. But they offer the benefit of accuracy; you can’t go wrong when you know all the rules by heart. Memorizing some cunning acronym such as DOCTOR or PLACE is A quick and dirty trick offering portability and efficiency. But the acronym method adds a new layer of mental gymnastics you have to perform in a practical situation. You first have to decipher the acronym and then figure out the rule that applies. Not very efficient, especially in a live conversation, is it?

So what if we could somehow have the best of both? Decide whether ser or estar without the mental acrobatics? Memorize the rules without actually having to memorize them? Let’s try doing that today. Read on and you’ll never mix up your ser and estar again. Just like the article on por and para, this one’s going to be a long-ish read, so brace up.

Ser or Estar: Why So Fussy, Spanish?

Excuse me for getting a tad technical here but bear with me, you’ll thank me later. Understanding why we even need two different verbs for one is key to internalizing the concept. And doing so calls for a little deep-dive into some history. And linguistics. Once you’ve understood the technical details, which is easier than you think, you’ll see how ser or estar is an easy choice. So forget ser or estar for now and just focus on acclimatizing yourselves with the very idea of having two verbs in the first place.

It’s called a copula, a verb that links the doer with the done. It’s the verb that sits between the subject and its predicate. In English, this copula is to be. In Spanish, it’s ser or estar. It all goes back to Latin, the mother of all Romance tongues you hear today. Latin had three verbs that would later become copulas in Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, etc. These verbs were:

  1. sēdēre (to sit),
  2. esse (to be), and
  3. stāre (to stand).

With time as Latin evolved into its modern Romance descendants, these three verbs fused together to form just one or two copulas. The process was complex, slow, and steady. Evolving conjugation rules and gradual pronunciation shifts have a lot to do with this metamorphosis. In the case of Spanish, sēdēre and esse evolved into a simplified ser. On the other hand, stāre morphed into estar via Vulgar Latin estare. And since the three original verbs served entirely disjoint purposes, their two Romance descendants do the same. So you see, whether ser or estar is a centuries old question Latin has everything to do with it. Phew, what an odyssey!

Ser or Estar: One Rule to Rule All Rules

Now that we know where the confusion comes from, let’s get to the meat of the matter: The trick! There are several ways to interpret the trick I’m gonna talk about. Let’s start with one and build up from there. The whole ser or estar thing boils down to one word: permanence. Ser, as we’ve already seen earlier, evolved from Latin sēdēre and esse. One means to sit and the other, to be. As opposed to that, estar comes from stāre (to stand). So think of this as a sit vs. stand situation. Sitting is always easier than standing, right? That makes sitting kinda more permanent than standing. And that’s why ser is more permanent than estar.

Another way to look at it is through estar. The verb has a noun derivative, estado. Estado sounds related to state because it is. That’s why United States is Estados Unidos. Think of states as temporary, e.g. the states of matter. Things cannot forever be in the same state, can they? They can be liquid, solid, or gaseous depending on their environment and inherent properties. Thus, estar is when the act of being is temporary which leaves ser for more permanent situations.

Whichever way you slice it, whether you pick ser or estar is just a question of permanent vs. temporary. Nail this little rule and you have your Spanish copulas down. For the most part. Exceptions do exist, but we’ll come to them later. Want an even easier trick to remember which one’s temporary and which one isn’t? Estar has a t, ser doesn’t. And t is for temporary! How easy was that! Now let some real-world examples illustrate this sorcery.

Rules for Ser

We have already established that, for the most part, ser handles all permanent attributes, the ones that last. A bunch of scenarios qualify for this use-case due to their lasting nature: Descriptions,occupations, characteristics, time, origin, and relationships. Many language hackers condense these into a handy little acronym, DOCTOR. But if you know the trick of permanence discussed above, you don’t really have much need for such acronyms. So let’s put our trickery to test against these permanent scenarios, one letter at a time.

First come descriptions. These qualify as permanent because they describe inherent qualities. Qualities that aren’t changing anytime soon, not on their own anyway. These could be your physical appearance, name, etc. Hence, ser:

Yo soy Jorge (I am George).

Then come occupations. Yes, you can switch jobs but your career is still seen as lasting since you rarely go from one profession to another even if you switch employers. Think of this as an anomaly, one of the exceptions I was speaking of earlier. Hence, ser:

Ella es profesora (She’s a teacher).

Then there’s characteristics. These, just like descriptions, these are inherent qualities and thus permanent. Again, ser:

Javier es inteligente y amable (Xavier is intelligent and friendly).

Time is tricky; it changes constantly, so anything but permanent. But what changes is not the inherent quality of time itself, it’s just the value. That’s why ser and not estar:

Son las once (It’s 11 o’clock).

Next up is origin. No matter where you go, where you’re from doesn’t change. Hence, ser:

Mi esposa es de Chile (My wife is from Chile).

The last one’s relationships. Again, these are considered permanent even though there’s ex-boyfriends and ex-bosses. This permanence can only take ser:

Paula es mi novia (Paula is my girlfriend).

The bus is (ser) red, the man is (estar) clicking pictures. The bus is (ser) red, the man is (estar) clicking pictures.
Iván Erre Jota licensed cc by-sa 2.0

Rules for Estar

Again, there’s several fancy acronyms to help you memorize the rules for estar, the most common one doing the rounds being PLACE. This one expands to Place, location, actions, condition, emotions. But if you can recall what the simple t-for-temporary rule discussed above, you don’t need any of these fancy acronyms. I repeat, ser or estar is always a question of permanent or temporary. Ser is permanent, estar temporary. Yes there’s exceptions but the rule still holds for an overwhelming majority of cases. So let’s run our theory of permanence past the PLACE test.

The first qualifier is position. This is more about posture than placement. Whether you’re sitting down or standing upright is subject to change. Hence, estar:

Mi abuela está sentada (My granny is seated).

Next up is location. Where you’re from never changes but where you are always can. Hence, estar:

Estoy en Honduras (I’m in Honduras).

Actions are the most temporary of all attributes discussed here. For the most part, what you’re doing right now isn’t what you’ll be doing later. It’s as temporary as it gets, thus quite the qualifier for estar:

Estamos leyendo los libros (We are reading the books).

Conditions can be permanent, right? Well, barring a very handful of exceptions, not really. You can’t forever be tired. Or crazy. Or sick. Something this temporary can’t take ser. It’s estar without doubt:

Mi abuelo está enfermo hoy (My grandpa is sick today).

Emotions are also impossible to last. You cannot forever remain mad at someone. You cannot be elated all the time. Moods change. Again, estar:

Estoy muy triste (I am very sad).

Ser or Estar: The Exceptions

So you see how our handy little theory fares on almost all parameters thrown at it? Now that we’ve managed to condense the choice of ser or estar in a single word, permanence, let’s look at those few elusive anomalies that refuse to comply.

Every rule has exceptions. Ours does too. Take death, for example. It’s mighty permanent, right? Should take ser, no? But guess what, to be dead is estar muerto and not ser muerto. Same with event venues. We have established that locations are temporary, they can change with time. That’s why to be in the city is estar en la ciudad and not ser en la ciudad. And yet when it comes to venues of events, it’s always ser and not estar. To confuse things further, there’s places where you can use both estar and ser but which one you use decides what you mean. How frustrating!

Don’t worry, everything has an explanation; they’re pretty intuitive for exceptions. Once you understand the justifications for each situation that goes against the grain, you’ll realize they’re actually as natural as it gets. Like I promised earlier, you won’t have to memorize a thing.

Ser or Estar with Aburrido?

Aburrido is the past participle of aburrir which means to bore or get bored. Needless to say aburrir and bore share a past which is why the similarity in how they appear and sound. Such word associations, etymological or made up, are a fun way to expand your Spanish vocabulary with minimal efforts. So which one is it, ser aburrido or estar aburrido? The answer is, it depends. Really, you can use either ser or estar with aburrido depending on what you want to convey.

Remember, estar has a t and t is for temporary. And ser is permanent. So ser aburrido indicates an inherent characteristic whereas estar aburrido is a temporary state of being. Confused? Allow me to explain.

Estoy aburrido (I am bored).

Soy aburrido (I am a boring person).

In the first example, boredom is a temporary state of being for you. It doesn’t define you as a person. That’s why estar. You’re bored in the particular moment. In the second example, on the other hand, we’ve used ser. That means this aburrido is more of a permanent feature, a lasting trait. And lasting traits define your very essence, your personality. The only possible interpretation of such a construct is that you’re boring, a boring person.

Ser or Estar with Death?

Death is permanent, there’s no denying that. To a rookie learner this is a no-brainer use-case for ser, the copula of permanence. But what’s life without a few anomalies. It’s estar muerto and not ser muerto! What? How? One way to remember this is to recall the defining event on the Mexican calendar, the Day of the Dead. This is the Mexican festival that celebrates the dead like you do Christmas. They build altars to the departed and make offering to their loved ones who are no more. If this sounds like a pagan tradition like the Egyptian mummies and the Scythian burial mounds, that’s because it is. The Mexican celebration of afterlife goes back to the pre-Columbian Aztecs and Mayans. Doesn’t all of this sound like death isn’t as terminal and permanent as it sounds, after all?

Here’s another possible explanation. When you die you’re dead for good, true. But were you always dead? No, right? I mean you were alive and kicking until the point you kicked the bucket. At least on that count, death can be seen as less than a forever thing. Also, it’s not an inherent characteristic, it doesn’t define your very essence. You become dead. Again, a more natural fit for estar than for ser.

So, is ser muerto possible at all? I’d say, yes. You can use ser with muerto, but only in a very limited range of situations. When you use ser with any attribute, you’re making that attribute an inherent characteristic. Humans are not dead by definition. But if you were speaking of, say, zombies or rocks, they’re dead by definition. Then ser should sound like a good idea.

Estar muerto, because you weren't always dead, were you? Estar muerto, because you weren’t always dead, were you?
Kevin Hutchinson licensed cc by 2.0

Ser or Estar with Feliz?

Feliz is Spanish for happy and is etymologically related to felicity. With that little detour out of the way, what does the adjective in question take, ser or estar? Again, depends. On what? On whether you mean happy as an attribute or as a state. Remember the golden trick, it’s always attribute vs. state. Permanent vs. temporary. Attributes are inherent, kinda permanent. States, on the other hand, are temporary and non-defining, subject to change.

So circling back to the original question, what’s happiness to you? Is it an attribute or is it just a phase? Does it define you as a person or does it describe a temporary state of mind? If it’s ser feliz, it means you’re a generally jolly person by nature. You’re cheerful in essence. But if it’s estar feliz, you’re feeling happy at the moment. You might be a fussy old grump otherwise but even fussy old grumps can be happy about certain things at times, right? The same is true for triste (sad) as well. You’re either a sad human being which calls for ser triste, or are just momentarily sad about something in which case it’s estar triste.

Ser or Estar with Pobre?

Pobre means poor. Now poor, by itself, can imply a whole range of things in English. You could be running-low-on-cash poor, or you could just be someone born in a poor family or community where being rich is not even a distant possibility. Much like India’s caste system. By now, it should be an easy guess which of the two scenarios takes ser and which one takes estar. Poverty need not be a permanent feature in today’s upwardly-mobile times. There’s more rags-to-riches stories today than ever before in history. Thus, estar pobre seems to be the most appropriate expression.

However, this upward mobility wasn’t a very common feature back in the day when Spanish was still shaping up. Back then, roles were pretty rigidly defined. A poor potter was a poor potter for generations. That’s why ser came to become the more commonly paired copula with pobre. As we all know, rules of grammar are slow to evolve with changing social landscape. Thus, even though poverty is no longer the poor cobbler’s defining trait, it’s always ser pobre for him and not estar pobre. If, however, you were actually referring to a temporary situation, for example, if you were running out of cash, estar pobre wouldn’t be a bad choice. This is the reason jobs and professions also take ser instead of estar. Job roles were pretty much permanent a few centuries ago.

Ser or Estar with Bueno?

Goodness can be an inherent trait or a temporary state, depending on the context. When you say ser bueno, you’re essentially attributing goodness to the person or thing as a general feature. This is the more common expression compared to estar bueno. Ser bueno means the person or thing is good in general. Perhaps a nice human being? A good dish liked by all? Anyone that’s good-natured or friendly. Anything that’s pleasant in essence. That’s ser bueno for you.

You pair bueno with estar when you’re talking about a state of being, good in a specific perception. For example, when someone is looking good or attractive. That person might otherwise be a horrible human being but is looking attractive at that particular time. Maybe it’s that new haircut, or the dress, or just the classy makeup. That’s what estar does, it turns the attribute into a transient state. Goes without saying, the same justification works for malo too.

Ser or Estar with Venues?

Where something is situated or located is almost always a changeable fact. Today you’re in Mexico, tomorrow you could be in Cuba. Today the White House is in Washington, tomorrow it could be in Los Angeles. Well, at least technically it’s possible, isn’t it? And that’s why it’s always estar when you speak of where something is. Estar en la oficina, estar en la calle, estar en México, and so on. Nothing in the universe is permanently at one place.

And yet, when you discuss venues, it’s ser. Why? Because where an event takes place is an inherent quality of that event. Among other things such as date and duration. I agree the venue can change, but only when you’re planning the event. Not when it’s actually happening. When you’re planning an event, it’s not yet an event. It becomes one only when it actually takes place. And when it does, it happens where it happens. That doesn’t change. This might take some time to get used to but once you get it, you’ll see how intuitive it sounds!

Ser or Estar with Verde?

What’s so special about verde (green) when there’s hundreds of others equally important? Well, green signifies a lot more than just the color. Things can be green for a whole lot of reasons. And it’s those reasons that often determine if the green-ness is to be treated as an attribute or a phase. Confused? Okay think of two greens, one generic as in just green in color without much else and the other green because it’s unripe.

Ser verde implies the subject is green in color and that being green is its defining feature. Take Hulk, for instance. Or a green shirt. The green color in these examples is a characteristic. That calls for ser. If you switch ser for estar, though, things change. Now the color is no longer a defining feature but a passing phase. This is when we use green as synonym for unripe. For example, tomatoes. They can be green now, but won’t remain green forever. Thus, unripe is a transient phase, ripe for estar verde. Sorry, couldn’t avoid the pun.

Ser or Estar with Caliente?

This one, again, is a matter of attribute vs. state. Caliente is hot and is related to words like calorie. So are you hot to the touch? are you sweating? Then it’s estar calor, because you’re not gonna remain this miserable forever. At least it’s not your inherent characteristic as a human. But then, you could also be very much at normal body temperatures but hot to look at. I mean sexy or attractive. Now that’s something else. This hot isn’t a phase, it’s a feature. This one takes ser.

So, a hot pan? Estar caliente. A hot girl? Ser caliente. See the difference? Does it feel natural? At least it’s commonsense grammar, if you ask me. Yes there can be cases where someone is looking hot but only for the time being because she’s probably wearing a sexy dress. But that doesn’t make it an estar candidate. It’s still gonna be ser. Why? Because even if it’s just because of the dress, it’s still she who’s looking hot in it. It’s her personality. It’s figurative.

Final Thoughts

By now, picking between ser and estar should have become second nature to you. Even if it hasn’t, don’t sweat it. It’s a very new concept and new concepts take time to drive home. As long as you’ve grasped the essence of transience and permanence, you have a good start. Beyond this point, it’s all about real-world practice. I have discussed only a handful of anomalies but there’s plenty more. These are just the most ubiquitous ones. And the best part is, the pattern doesn’t change much. If you’re thorough with these, you can easily make your way through the rest. Intuition plays a big role when it comes to making the right choice.

Whenever in doubt, just ask yourself, is it a feature or a state? The answer to this question will almost always be your best guide in any ser or estar situation. Speak with native speakers. Read Spanish-language texts. The best part about ser and estar is that they’re so freaking common, they’re everywhere! So you should get tons of exposure to them without much digging around. Have you run into any fun and interesting anomaly to the rule we just discussed? Any use-case that confuses you despite this trick? Please do share them with us in a comment below and we could work together to nail the beast.

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