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Uses of Ser and Estar part 2

We ended the last article on this definition of the uses of ‘ser’ and ‘estar’.

Estar refers to ‘how’ and ‘where’

Ser refers to ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘when’

I’m rather pleased with that definition because I think it gives us a very good starting point and sums up the main difference between the two verbs.  We can include the word ‘when’ in our definition of ‘ser’ as this is the verb used for time expressions, such as:

¿Qué hora es?

Son las dos.

Hoy es lunes.

¿Cuándo es tu cumpleaños?

Estar’ refers to the ‘state’ of something or someone.  The word is actually linked to the word ‘state’ which is ‘estado’ in Spanish.  A nation state is ‘un estado’ and something that is in a good or bad state or condition is in ‘mal estado’ or ‘buen estado’.

We ask people ‘¿Cómo estás?’ (How are you? In other words “What state are you in?”)  This could also apply to things:

La mesa está sucia.” (the table is dirty)

La comida está caliente.” (the food is hot)

Most learners of Spanish also catch on reasonably easily to the idea that ‘estar’ is connected to location as in:

Madrid está en el centro de España.” (Madrid is in the centre of Spain).

El libro está encima de la mesa.” (the book is on the table).

(Notice that ‘estar’ is used in both cases, irrespective of whether the location is temporary or permanent).

In the case of ‘ser’ we are talking about ‘who’ or ‘what’.  In other words, something that can describe the quality or nature of something in a way that makes it recognizable.  Obvious examples are:

Soy Jane, soy profesora, soy inglesa, soy delgada” (I’m Jane, I’m a teacher, I’m English, I’m thin)

These are descriptions of ‘who’ I am.  This works in the same way for things:

el mundo es redondo” (the world is round)

la mesa es grande” (the table is big)

They all describe essential, identifiable qualities or characteristics.

There is another basic principle about these two verbs and about languages in general which I think is worth pointing out here, which is that it is not always helpful to be over-concerned about what is strictly ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’.  Quite often it is more a question of what idea we wish to express.   Sometimes the difference between ‘ser’ and ‘estar’ is simply the difference between a characteristic and a state.  For example, I could say of a woman ‘es guapa’ (she is pretty) as a way of describing and identifying her using the verb ‘ser’, or I could look at someone who has just walked into the room all made up with her hair done and a new dress and say ‘estás muy guapa hoy’ using the verb ‘estar’.   The best way to translate this into English would be:  “You’re looking very pretty today”.  I’m not implying that the person isn’t usually pretty, I’m just referring to their ‘state’ rather than something that describes them in an essential way.

There are many other examples related to ‘ser’ and ‘estar’, where what is correct or incorrect depends on what you mean.  For example, I might say; “estoy aburrida” which means “I am bored” that is, in a state of boredom.  If I say “soy aburrida”, this means “I am boring”, that is a boring person.

Another well-known example is the word ‘listo’.

Estar listo” means to be ready, whereas “ser listo” means to be clever – on the ball, quick on the uptake.

There are many other examples of these kinds of differences and as you can see they are often expressed in quite different ways in English.  As ever, it is our reliance of translation which can make foreign languages harder for us to grasp.

I think I will spend one more month giving you some more examples related to ‘ser’ or ‘estar’ before moving on to other wonderful things about this fascinating language we are learning!

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