Ser and Estar—The No-Nonsense Guide

September 19, 2016
<p><span class="sp">Ser</span> and <span class="sp">estar</span> have been fighting an epic existential battle for the past five hundred years.</p><p>What started out as an innocent mix-up between three Latin verbs (<span class="sp">esse</span> <span class="en">to be</span>, <span class="sp">sedere</span> <span class="en">to sit</span> and <span class="sp">stare</span> <span class="en">to stand, to stay</span>) has been escalating into the foggy quagmire of meaning that we find ourselves in today.</p><p>Before we can navigate this complex landscape we need to find our true north: the difference between the <strong>essence</strong> of things and their <strong>state</strong>.</p><!--more--><h2><a name="essence_vs_state"></a> Essence (<span class="sp">ser</span>) vs. State (<span class="sp">estar</span>)</h2><p><span class="sp">Ser</span> is most often used:</p><ul><li><strong>to define the essence</strong> of things, </li><li><strong>to describe their identifying characteristics</strong>, and</li><li><strong>to pigeonhole</strong> them into a category</li></ul><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Dame un ejemplo, que no lo pillo.</span><br><span class="en">"Give me an example, (since) I don't get it."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Te doy tres: una mesa <strong>es</strong> un mueble con patas, mi perro <strong>es</strong> muy cariñoso y tú <strong>eres</strong> un estudiante.</span><br><span class="en">"I (will) give you three: a table is a (piece of) furniture with legs, my dog is very affectionate, and you are a student."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Vale. El primero <em>define</em> lo que es una mesa, el segundo describe una <em>característica intrínseca</em> de tu perro y el tercero me <em>encasilla</em> en la categoría de estudiante.</span><br><span class="en">"Ok. The first <em>defines</em> what a table is, the second describes an <em>intrinsic characteristic</em> of your dog, and the third <em>pigeonholes</em> me in the category of student."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Exacto.</span><br><span class="en">"Exact(ly)"</span></p></div><p><span class="sp">Estar</span> is commonly used:</p><ul><li><strong>to indicate the location</strong> of things (their physical state), and</li><li><strong>to single out the state they are in</strong>, especially when we want to<ul><li>a) <strong>subtly distinguish it from other states</strong>, or </li><li>b) <strong>imply the cause that led to this state</strong>.</li></ul></li></ul><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Venga. Creo que ya lo entiendo. Ahora dame algunos ejemplos con <strong>estar</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">"Ok. I think that now I understand it. Now give me some examples with <span class="sp">estar</span>."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Ahí van: la mesa <strong>está</strong> pegada a la pared, mi perro <strong>está</strong> enfermo y tú <strong>estás</strong> cansado de estudiar.</span><br><span class="en">"Here they go: the table is right up against the wall, my dog is sick, and you are tired of studying."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—A ver si lo he entendido: el primero indica la <em>ubicación</em> de la mesa, el segundo distingue el <em>estado de enfermedad</em> de un <em>estado de salud</em> y el tercero explica que mi <em>estado de cansancio</em> se debe al estudio.</span><br><span class="en">"Let's see if I have understood it: the first indicates the <em>location</em> of the table, the second distinguishes the <em>state of sickness</em> from a <em>state of health</em>, and the third explains that my <em>state of tiredness</em> is due to the study."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Lo has clavado.</span><br><span class="en">"You nailed it."</span></p></div><p>Although they both have their primary roles, <span class="sp">ser</span> and <span class="sp">estar</span> have spent centuries hoarding additional usages, and they're not going to give them up anytime soon.</p><blockquote class="legacy-blockquote"><p>Don't try to learn all the usages of <span class="sp">ser</span> and <span class="sp">estar</span> at the same time.</p></blockquote><p>If you were learning how to juggle, you'd want to get <em>really</em> good with those plastic balls before you tried your luck with knives, flaming torches, and radioactive chainsaws.</p><p>So, before we move on to the more confusing cases, let's go through a few more examples of <em>essence</em> vs. <em>state</em>.</p><h3><a name="essence_vs_state2"></a> More essence (<span class="sp">ser</span>) vs. state (<span class="sp">estar</span>) examples</h3><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">La playa <strong>es</strong> el sitio que más me relaja.</span><br><span class="en">The beach is the place that most relaxes me.</span></p></div><p>This is a <em>definition</em>. You could replace <span class="sp">es</span> with an equals sign (=) and it would still work.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Esta playa <strong>está</strong> muy <strong>bien</strong> para relajarse después del trabajo. </span><br><span class="en">This beach is very good for relaxing (oneself) after (the) work.</span></p></div><p>The <span class="sp"><strong>bien</strong></span> adverb is contrasting the good <em>state</em> of the beach from any other possible state.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Dicen que el agua salada <strong>es</strong> muy <strong>buena</strong> para la salud.</span><br><span class="en">They say that the salty water is very good for the health.</span></p></div><p>Here we're talking about an <em>identifying characteristic</em> of sea water.</p><p>The difference between the previous example and this one is that <span class="sp"><strong>bien</strong></span> is an adverb. That means you can only use <span class="sp">estar</span> because <strong><span class="sp">ser</span> doesn't work with adverbs</strong>. This is worth tattooing somewhere in your brain:</p><ul><li><span class="sp">Esto <strong>está bien</strong></span> (adverb).</li><li><span class="sp">Esto <strong>es bueno</strong></span> (adjective).</li></ul><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Yo no <strong>soy</strong> un lagarto. Me gusta <strong>estar</strong> en el agua más que tomar el sol. </span><br><span class="en">I am not a lizard. I like being in the water more than (taking) the sun.</span></p></div><p>In the first part we refuse to be <em>pigeonholed</em> as a beach lizard; in the second, we're talking about the <em>location</em> we prefer to be in.</p><hr /><p>⬆<br><strong>This is the 80-20 <span class="sp">ser</span> vs. <span class="sp">estar</span> line</strong>. The smartest way to invest your time is to internalize the usages above this line–<strong>they will get you 80% of the way to mastery</strong>.</p><p>Make a list of the <span class="sp">ser</span> and <span class="sp">estar</span> sentences that you come across in your daily Spanish life and <strong>focus on the ones that fit above this line</strong>. When you feel like you totally grok those, you can start paying attention to the stuff below.<br>⬇</p><hr /><h2><a name="side_hustle_adjectives"></a> Side Hustle Adjectives</h2><p>Welcome to the 20% jungle.</p><p>Arguably the most confusing aspect of the <span class="sp">ser</span>-<span class="sp">estar</span> duality is the fact that every adjective has a regular day job with <span class="sp">ser</span>, but <strong>a bunch of them also have a completely different side hustle with <span class="sp">estar</span></strong>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Te juro que este restaurante no <strong>es malo</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">"I swear (to you) that this restaurant <strong>is not bad</strong> (identifying characteristic)."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Pues el tiramisú que me han traído <strong>está bastante malo</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">"(Well), the tiramisu they just brought me <strong>tastes really bad</strong> (new meaning: to taste bad)."</span></p></div><p>Three things to remember here:</p><ul><li>If you're comfortable with the essence vs. state distinction, <strong>you don't really have to go and memorize a long list of adjectives</strong>. Just notice them when they come up in your readings and conversations and go with your intuition when you try to use them.</p></li><li><p><strong>Not every adjective will work with both <span class="sp">ser</span> and <span class="sp">estar</span></strong>; and even if they do, one of the usages will often be much more common than the other.</p></li><li><p>If you're not sure, but your gut tells you that <strong>you need a preposition</strong>, it's almost always <span class="sp">estar</span>:</p></li></ul><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—<strong>Es</strong> un sitio muy <strong>seguro</strong>. <strong>Estoy seguro de</strong> que te gustará.</span><span class="en">It <strong>is</strong> a very <strong>safe</strong> place (identifying characteristic). I'm <strong>convinced</strong> that it will please you (new meaning: to be sure of something).</span><p><span class="sp">—De acuerdo. <strong>Estoy listo para</strong> ir. Qué <strong>listo eres</strong> cuando te conviene.</span><br><span class="en">"All right. I'm <strong>ready</strong> to go (new meaning: to be ready for something). (It's amazing) how <strong>smart you are</strong> when it suits you (identifying characteristic)."</span></p></div><p>As far as I know, the only exception to this <span class="sp">estar</span>-preposition connection is <span class="sp"><strong>soy consciente de</strong></span> (<span class="en">I'm aware that</span>) (<span class="sp">de</span> is the preposition), as opposed to <span class="sp"><strong>estoy consciente</strong></span> (<span class="en">I'm conscious</span>) (no preposition).</p><h2><a name="estar_gerund"></a> <span class="sp">Estar {gerundio}</span></h2><p>This is an easy one: if you have a <span class="sp">gerundio</span> (verb forms that end in <span class="sp">-ando</span>, <span class="sp">-iendo</span>, or <span class="sp">-yendo</span>) use <span class="sp">estar</span>. Always:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—Mi madre <strong>me está llamando</strong>, así que tengo que irme.</span><br><span class="en">"My mother is calling me, so I have to go"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Nosotros también nos vamos porque <strong>se está haciendo</strong> tarde.</span><br><span class="en">"We're also (leaving) because it's getting late."</span></p></div><p>Notice that <span class="en">we're leaving</span> is not translated as <span class="sp">nos estamos yendo</span>. In English it's totally fine to say <em>we're leaving</em> and still be at the club an hour later waiting for your friends to find their coats, but in Spanish we use the present to indicate this near future meaning (<span class="sp">nos vamos</span>, <span class="en">we go</span>) and <strong>only use the <span class="sp">gerundio</span> for things that have already begun</strong>.</p><h2><a name="time"></a> What time (<span class="sp">es</span>)?</h2><p><span class="sp">Ser</span> has a monopoly on:</p><ol><li>Indicating at what time events take place (it's a lazy stand-in for <span class="sp">celebrarse</span> <span class="en">to take place</span>)</li><li>Telling what time it is:</li></ol><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—El cumpleaños de Santi <strong>es</strong> a las 20:00, ¿verdad?</span><br><span class="en">"Santi's birthday (party) is at 8pm, right?"</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Correcto. Así que date prisa que ya <strong>son</strong> las 19:45.</span><br><span class="en">"Correct. So (give yourself haste) (since) it's 7:45pm already."</span></p></div><p>Dates are also usually indicated with <span class="sp">ser</span>, but if you have synesthesia and think of time as a location, you can also use <span class="sp">estar</span>:</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">Hoy <strong>es</strong> martes.</span><br><span class="en">Today is Tuesday.</span></p><p><span class="sp">Hoy <strong>estamos</strong> a martes.</span><br><span class="en">Today we are (literally) on Tuesday.</span></p></div><h2>When it's neither <span class="sp">ser</span> nor <span class="sp">estar</span></h2><p>To add to the confusion, sometimes we don't need either <span class="sp">ser</span> or <span class="sp">estar</span>. The most common alternatives tend to be <span class="sp">haber</span>, <span class="sp">hacer</span>, <span class="sp">tener</span> or <span class="sp">llevar</span>.</p><div class="translation"><p><span class="sp">—No entiendo cómo <strong>hay</strong> tanta gente en la calle con el frío que <strong>hace</strong>.</span><br><span class="en">"I don't understand how there <strong>are</strong> so many people in the street (considering) how cold it <strong>is</strong>."</span></p><p><span class="sp">—Yo no <strong>tengo</strong> tanto frío. Y eso que <strong>llevo</strong> una hora aquí esperándote.</span><br><span class="en">"I <strong>(am)</strong> not so cold. (And that's considering) that I <strong>have been</strong> here for an hour waiting for you."</span></p></div><h2>Spanish takeaways</h2><p>The safest road out of the <span class="sp">ser</span> vs. <span class="sp">estar</span> dilemma is to <strong>understand the essence vs. state distinction</strong>. Old grammar books used to teach that you should focus on the <em>permanent</em> vs. <em>temporary</em> aspect of things, but that led to all kinds of problems because there are permanent states (<span class="sp">Mi hámster <strong>está</strong> muerto</span>, <span class="en">My hamster is dead</span>) and temporary essences (<span class="sp">Mi primo <strong>es</strong> estudiante de primer año</span>, <span class="en">My cousin is (a) first year student</span>).</p><p>If you find <span class="sp">ser</span> and <span class="sp">estar</span> confusing, don't make it more confusing by trying to learn all of the usages and all the verb forms at the same time. <strong>Stay above the 80% line and focus on the present tense</strong>. Once you get the essence-state distinction in the present, you can start adding additional tenses and moods.</p><p>The list of <span class="sp">ser</span> and <span class="sp">estar</span> usages is endless. If you come across any instance that puzzles you, feel free to ask about it in the comments.</p>