Use of Ser and Estar part 3

We’ll start off this month by reiterating the difference between the use of ‘ser’ and ‘estar’, namely that ‘ser’ describes ‘who’ and ‘what’ and ‘estar’ describes ‘how’, ‘where’ or ‘when’.  We have looked at a few specific examples of this and this month we will explore the differences further.  Always remember that there is often no hard and fast rule.  It can be a question of what you actually want to say and also, whilst I’m being nice and reassuring, remember that the Spanish are quite used to foreigners getting the two verbs mixed up, so they can usually figure out what you’re trying to say, without your needing to feel too embarrassed.

Here are some more specific examples of the difference between these two verbs ‘to be’, when used with adjectives.   Let’s take the word ‘maduro’ which can mean ‘ripe’ referring to food and ‘mature’ when referring to people.  We would say of a young person es maduro’; ‘he is mature’, describing his character, whereas of fruit we would say ‘está maduro’, ‘it’s ripe’, that is, in a state ripe for eating.

Sometimes the difference is less obvious, but quite important.  What about if we feel a bit over-weight, maybe through eating too much over Christmas?  We should say ‘estoy gordo’ or ‘estoy gorda’ (I’m in a state of fatness at the moment) rather than ‘soy gordo’ or ‘soy gorda’ (I am a fat person).  At least that way we give the message to ourselves and others that there is really a ‘thin person underneath’!

One example of my long list of mistakes whilst grasping these concepts was when I misused the word ‘pendiente’.  This actually means ‘earring’, but when used as an adjective with ‘estar’ it also means ‘attentive/waiting’.  It’s not a good idea to say to a group of young students ‘soy pendiente’ (I’m an earring!) but if you do, you won’t make the same mistake again.

Moving away from descriptions now, there are a couple of examples of when the verb ‘estar’ is used to form specific grammatical constructions.  One is the ‘present action’ or ‘present continuous’ tense, which we have talked about before, in which we use the appropriate form of ‘estar’, plus the present participle, as in ‘Estoy aprendiendo español’, ‘¿Estás escuchando?  Está jugando’ etc.

The verb ‘estar’ is also often used with past participles when they change into adjectives.  For example, the past participle of ‘romper’ (to break) is ‘roto’ (broken).   We have seen before how to say this like:

The child has broken the cup.

El niño ha roto el vaso.

However, we can also say:

The cup is broken.

El vaso está roto.

In this sort of transformation which describes the state of something, we will always use the verb ‘estar’.  This is why, incidentally, we say ‘está casado,está divorciado’, está muerto’ as they are adjectives formed from the past participle of verbs.

People often think it is strange to use ‘estar’ to describe someone as married or dead, particularly if they have been taught that ‘estar’ is used to describe a temporary situation.   However, if we reject ‘temporary’ and ‘permanent’ as a useful rule and follow this grammatical explanation, it might just make a bit more sense!

To round this up and referring to the same subject area, we would say ‘soy soltero’ (I am single) using the verb ‘ser’.  This is because we are saying ‘I am a single person’.  Soltero’ is a noun which can also be an adjective, but it is not a past participle.

I am skirting on the edge of an abyss here, but I hope you realize I am doing this all for your sakes, to help you to understand something that is actually a little complex.   If it doesn’t make sense, please just go back to the explanation:  ‘because it is’ or even ‘because the teacher says so’ or better still ‘because that’s what the Spanish say’ and that will have to do!

Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are available as e-books at where you can also obtain Jane’s “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.