Spanish Language Blog

Ser vs Estar Posted by on Mar 26, 2010 in Spanish Grammar

One challenge for Spanish learners is distinguishing when to use ser or estar, both of which translate into “to be” in English. Generally, ser is used with adjectives expressing permanent characteristics (including nationality, physical appearance and personality) while estar is used for temporary states or conditions, such as emotions. Sometimes learners believe that a given adjective is always and exclusively used with one or the other, but in fact some adjectives can be paired with both ser AND estar depending on what the speaker is trying to express.

Here are a few examples. Notice the difference in meaning:

Los cafés están fríos. The coffees are cold (The coffees we are referring to are normally hot, and so their being cold is a temporary condition.)
as opposed to
Los frapuccinos son fríos. Frapuccinos are cold (Frapuccinos are characteristically cold-they are never hot)
Francisco es guapo. Francisco is handsome (This is a permanent physical attribute)
as opposed to
Francisco está super guapo hoy! Francisco is (looks) really handsome today! (Here, his handsomeness is a temporary condition, due to a change from the norm such as his choice of clothing that day, the way he styled his hair, or some other alteration)

In addition, there are some adjectives that completely change meaning depending on their use with ser or estar.

Here are a few examples:

Elena está aburrida. Elena is bored.
Elena es aburrida. Elena is boring.
Marco está cansado. Marco is tired.
Correr un maratón es cansado. Running a marathon is tiring.
La manzana está verde. The apple is unripe
Las manzanas Granny Smith son verdes. Granny Smith apples are green.
¿Estás listo para ir al cine? Are you ready to go to the movies?
Ese niño es muy listo. That little boy is very clever.
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  1. Jmart:

    This is a nice Portuguese explanation as well for those interested.