It appears that I committed myself rather foolishly to writing about the uses of SER and ESTAR this month. I would now quite like to change my mind, but as I don’t want to disappoint the thousands of readers who have been waiting for today’s article with bated breath, I will do my duty.
First of all, we need to look at their structure, as both verbs are officially irregular in the present simple tense, which is why we are talking about them now.
SER is clearly irregular as it is quite different from anything else at all. However, it might be more difficult for you to detect exactly why ESTAR is considered to be irregular. Have a good look at it and I will tell you in the next sentence what the answer is.
The reason ESTAR is considered irregular is because of the accents and therefore the rhythm with which the words are said. I have mentioned many times in the course of our ‘Present Simple’ articles about how important it is to put the beat of the word on the roots in the first, second and third persons singular and third person plural. The significance of this is even more evident in the case of Root-Changing verbs because it is the beat of the word which creates the change in the root. However, unlike any other verb, ESTAR has the beat on the endings of all six forms.
We should have been getting this right anyway from the time when we learnt to say ¿Dónde está? and ¿Cómo estás? when hopefully your Spanish teacher made you emphasise the final syllables. It makes all the difference to understanding when you speak.
On the subject of usage, the first thing I want to do is disagree firmly and clearly with something that almost everyone seems to think about the use of SER and ESTAR (if you don’t think this, then just ignore the next bit) and that is that we use SER for ‘permanent’ and ESTAR for ‘temporary’. There are occasions when this rule of thumb may be useful, but it can also be misleading if it is taken as the main difference between the two verbs. It fact it can create a lot of confusion which is a devil of a job to sort out once we start using both of these verbs in past and future tenses. The problem is that the concepts of ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ are time-related concepts. They make us conceive of the meaning of these two verbs solely in terms of the length of time they describe. However, the meanings of SER and ESTAR have no connection whatsoever with the concept of time.
The difference between the two verbs is really to do with quality rather than quantity of time, but before we even get on to that and if you need a rule of thumb to replace the one you’ve just lost, this is mine which you are welcome to try out for size:
ESTAR refers to ‘how’ and ‘where’
SER refers to ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘when’
Before I go into more details about finer differences, there is of course the major point that the verb ESTAR is used to refer to location. If you want to describe ‘where’ something is, you will always use this verb. Going back to the distinction made earlier, this is equally true when talking about a temporary location “El boli está encima de la mesa” and permanent location “Madrid está en el centro de España”.
As I suspected, this subject is going to take me onto to a second article, but I have now at least given you something to think about for the intervening month. Obviously and as with most things, it isn’t all that simple, but I think this will give you a clearer starting point to move on from next month.
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.