To be, or not to be… that is the question which we will be contemplating today in this post. We won’t be discussing Shakespeare, though, but rather, the way the verb ‘to be’ is expressed in Spanish. Of all the concepts to be learned in the language, perhaps this is one of the least familiar and most challenging. As opposed to many Western European languages, Spanish has two verbs that translate to the verb ‘to be’ in English: the verbs ser and estar.

Unfortunately, English speakers have no frame of reference for this, and thus, must memorize the grammar rules and practice applying them until the concept is familiar. This is a similar situation to how the English verbs ‘make’ and ‘do’ translate to hacer in Spanish, resulting in a great deal of confusion when Spaniards learn English. Unlike ‘make’ and ‘do’, however, which have no rules and are used on a case-by-case basis,  fortunately for us, there are specific rules for when to use ser and when to use estar.

the verbs ser y estar

The verb Ser

 

Since the list of cases can get quite long, here we will mention some of the situations in which ser is used:

 

-to identify a subject:

Él es Juan.
Mi mejor amigo es médico.

 

-to express origin, material, or ownership:

Son de Zaragoza.
Es mío.
Es de oro.

 

-used with adjectives that express essential or defining qualities

Son ricos./Es rojo./Éramos jóvenes.

 

-to express time, dates, and quantities

Son las 3./Mañana es día 1./Son 100.

 

-for impersonal expressions

Es posible que venga./Es importante que no se lo digas a nadie.

 

The verb estar

 

Here are some situations in which estar is used:

 

-to express location:

Están aquí./Está en el suelo./Está en el pasillo.

 

-used with adjective and adverbs to express states and conditions

Está abierto toda la noche./Está bien./Las cosas están difíciles ahora.

 

Ser vs. Estar

 

Although the rules regarding the usage of these two verbs are quite straightforward, there are some situations that can be a bit confusing. First of all, despite the fact that estar is used for location, when talking about where events take place, ser is used, e.g. El concierto es en el Palacio de Deportes.

Another issue that arises is the possibility of using both ser and estar with the same adjective. For example, if you say La manzana es verde, what you’re saying is that the apple is green, that is, that it is always green as opposed to being red. On the other hand, if you say La manzana está verde, what you’re saying is that the apple isn’t ripe. Another example of this is ser listo vs. estar listo; the former means ‘to be clever’ and the latter means ‘to be ready’.

A last point of confusion is the adjective muerto, which means ‘dead’. Surprisingly enough, this adjective is expressed with estar. Whether you’re expressing a real death, e.g. El paciente está muerto, or a figurative one, e.g., Estoy muerto de sueño, we must always use estar.

 

Ser or estar, that is the question

As you can see, mastering this concept of which verb to use is not an easy task. Once you get to Spain, be sure to sign up for some Spanish classes and plan on spending a fair amount of time studying and practicing the language. Only in this way will you be able to find an answer to the classic conundrum of “To be, or not to be…”.