“To Be,” or “To Be,” What’s the Difference? Time For a Spanish Lesson!

March 8th Title ImageAs a Spanish tutor, I get all sorts of questions about grammar, there can be a lot of things that seem confusing to people who grew up their whole life speaking one language and are now trying to learn a new one. One of the most common problems I run into with my students is the confusion of ser vs. estarmac. Both words can be translated into english as “to be” but have very distinct uses, and it can be hard to keep track of which word to use when. So that’s what today’s post is for, I am going to do my best to explain the difference. If you’re taking a Spanish class in school, trying to learn the language on your own, or just curious to learn a little tidbit about another language, hopefully today’s post will help you to learn a little something new. Often when I have students that are confused about ser vs. estar, I point them to spanishdict.com’s explanation, they use really great acronyms that help students to remember the difference between the two words. For ser, spanishdict.com uses the acronym DOCTOR, which stands for: Description, Occupation, Characteristic, Time, Origin, and Relationship. For estar, spanishdict.com uses the acronym PLACE, which stands for: Position, Location, Action, Condition, and Emotion. Spanishdict.com (see link above) provides a wonderfully clear explanation of these acronyms, and I find that many students who take the time to read it have a much easier time understanding how to use ser and estar.

Next, I want to address is a mistake that many students make in their attempts to differentiate the two words. I have talked to countless students who try to describe ser as relating to permanent things, and estar as relating to temporary things. This is incorrect and will cause you plenty of confusion. One example my spanish teacher liked to give of how this distinction does not work is the phrase “to be dead.” In spanish, this phrase would be translated as “estar muerte.” For example, if I were to say “My grandfather is dead,” I would say “Mi abuelo está muerte.” Now let me ask you a question: Is death temporary? Typically, unless you’re Jesus or a zombie, once you’re dead, you’re dead. Another example of estar being used to describe something permanent is some cases of location. Yes, there are cases of location that are temporary (For example, “Estoy en un avión” which means “I am in an airplane.”), but there are also cases in which location is permanent, such as the location of countries. For example, if I were to say that the United States is south of Canada, I would say: “Los Estados Unidos están al sur de Canadá.” In this sentence I used estar, because I am describing the location of one country relative to another. Now, unless some major geological or political event occurs, The U.S. will always be south of Canada, so here we have another case in which estar is not describing a temporary situation. So, I beg you, please do not try to simplify the difference between ser and estar by saying “Ser is permanent and estar is temporary.” It will cause you far too much confusion and trouble in your attempts to properly use the spanish language.

Lastly, I want to demonstrate the importance of choosing the correct “to be” verb. Many adjectives can be correctly used with both ser and estar, but your choice of verb can drastically change the meaning of the sentence. One of the best examples of this concept is the adjective “aburrido,” which means bored or boring. If you’re telling your friend about how boring your new history teacher is, you might say: “Mi profesor de historia es muy aburrido” (My history teacher is very boring). On the other hand, if you’re sitting in your history class and want to tell your friend how bored you are, you might say: “¡Estoy tan aburrido!” (“I’m so bored!”). If you’re not careful to use the correct verb, you might end up telling your friend that you are boring (“¡Soy tan aburrido!”) which coule elicit some laughs and teasing from your friends.

I hope you enjoyed today’s post and found it useful, if you have any comments or questions feel free to share them in the comments section. Are you currently studying Spanish? Have you studied Spanish in the past? What are some things that you struggle with in learning this language? Feel free to share them below and I’ll do my best to address them in future posts. Do you have any tips of your own? Share those, too!
If you’re studying Spanish, what are you studying it for? Are you simply taking a spanish class so you can graduate? Are you studying in order to pursue a career such as translator, interpreter, or something else? Are you studying spanish just for fun, or maybe you’re planning on travelling to a hispanic country and are learning the language so you can communicate better? I’d love to hear about your experiences with learning Spanish (or any foreign language), please share your stories in the comments.

Happy Learning!

-Lizzie