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Ser and Estar, Let’s Fix them Once and for All
- January 12, 2021
- Posted by: Kelly McLarnan
- Category: Blog
One of the issues beginner students struggle with involves the application of ser and estar. Both verbs translate to ‘to be’ but have very different uses. For beginner and intermediate Spanish students, these verbs can be a continual source of frustration.
It’s not about how permanent something is. . .
One of my hot buttons as a teacher is when someone says something like: “One of the verbs is for changing things and the other one is for permanent conditions.” I am all for easy grammar solutions, but this is the one that just makes for long-term disasters. I tried to understand it, but all the exceptions drove me coconuts-bananas when I was a learner.
Plus, just about everything in life changes, so the whole permanence thing is a total existential fib, as well as being an ineffectual way for understanding about ser and estar.
Quick solution: Memorize the most frequently asked questions. The questions not only make you a more active participant in an actual conversation, they also reveal the inner meanings of ser and estar. If a question is posed using some form of the verb ser, the answer will also employ some form of ser. The same thing goes for estar.
Here’s a list of questions you need to master:
- ¿Cómo está/s?–How are you?
- ¿Dónde está/s?–Where are you?
- ¿Dónde está la casa/la gasolinera/la comisaría?–Where is the house/gas station/police station? (No, it does not matter that it is rather permanent. Estar is used for location.)
- ¿Quién eres/es?–Who are you?/Who is he/she?
- ¿Cómo eres/es?–What are you like?/What is he/she like?
- ¿Qué es?–What is it?
- ¿De dónde es/eres?–Where are you from?
- ¿De quién es?–Whose is it?
- ¿Qué hora es?–What time is it?
In addition to being able to answer these questions, learners must also be able to use the questions. Beginners, please don’t freeze up and run away after you answer the question. Ask a question back, like in a real conversation, and listen.
Estar is the verb of condition and location. The condition or mood of someone is often accompanied by estar. The most common questions with estar involve the questions ¿Cómo está? and ¿Dónde está? Moods and conditions change all the time, yet location may or may not change. Estoy bien is the most typical answer for ¿Cómo está?–How are you? If I call a friend and ask where they are ¿Dónde estás?–Where are you? or if I need to know the location of a place–¿Dónde está tu casa? These questions are asked employing estar and will therefore be answered with some form of the verb. Estoy en clase/I’m in class; Estoy en camino/I’m on the way; Mi casa está en la calle principal/My house is on the main street.
Estar reflects phases of life as well, so you may see something like, está muerto/a–He/she/it is dead. Other outliers include está loco/a–he/she is crazy, and está casado/a–he/she is married. Some of these might be expressed with either verb, but in standard Spanish, they are typically expressed using estar because they are considered part of the ever-changing human condition.
A few other outliers come to mind, as estar can be used to express perception. El muchacho ya está grande–The boy is already getting big. The statement uses está mainly to show a change in perception, and not really to define. The use of es (ser) would also be pretty standard Spanish. ¡Qué guapa estás!–How pretty you look! Of course the person might be (ser) pretty all the time, but in this instance, they are looking particularly good or dressed up. La calle está fea–The street is in a nasty/ugly condition. This one is pretty standard, but it could also be considered an example of perception. I hear this all the time as I drive in taxis up muddy jungle roads with potholes. Is the scenery definitively ugly? No. The state of the street is just not nice at the moment and something about it has gotten unpleasant for the time-being.
Ser is used to talk about defining characteristics of a person or thing. Ser is also used to tell time. That is where the idea of permanence comes from, but many of these characteristics can change rather quickly, so that rule does not work. I might get rich overnight! I might get my hair dyed blue. I could get a new job or profession. These are all situations most often described with ser, in any of its many forms.
Check out the silly video below and see how many times Patricio uses the yo form of ser, soy–I am. Which kinds of characteristics is he describing?
The questions, ¿Quién es?¿Cómo es? both require the verb ser, and therefore must be used to answer these questions. Of course there are many different conjugations, which is a different topic, but most of the problems of application can be solved using the question method. To answer these ser questions, I use the first person singular, the ‘I am’ form of the verb: Soy Kelly; soy profesora de español. No soy alta ni soy baja. Soy rubia , pero a veces soy morena.
¿De dónde es/eres? ´Where are you from´ is also a point of confusion. The origin of something or someone is considered an inherent characteristic. Soy de Estados Unidos/Soy de Inglaterra/Soy de Australia are all possible answers to this question. Ownership is expressed with ser. ¿De quién es la bicicleta?–Es de Juan.
In addition, time of day is also expressed with ser. What changes quicker than time? Nothing I can think of. . . ¿Qué hora es? Es la una, Son las dos, Son las tres, . . . Es mediodía, es medianoche. . . The form of ser changes from singular to plural es–>son depending on whether or not the hour of the day or time expression is singular or plural.
My advice? Don’t overcomplicate it, but also do not fall into this very limited and somewhat flawed old belief about permanence vs. impermanence. Learn the questions and be able to speak them, completely. Listen. As you improve listen for the details and go with the flow!