Quick Answer

Tricky Pairs

Learning the differences between serand estar, por and para, and the subjunctive and the indicative is often quite challenging for learners of Spanish. ¡Ánimo!(Cheer up!) After reading this article, you'll have a good handle on the first of these tricky pairs, ser and estar.

Review Time: if you're not sure how to conjugate these two important verbs (they're irregular), check out the verb conjugation tables for ser and estar.

Uses of Ser

Ser is used to talk about permanent or lasting attributes. If this general rule is too vague for you, think of the acronym DOCTOR, which stands for Descriptions, Occupations, Characteristics, Time, Origin, and Relationships. Let's take a look at each of the above categories individually.

1. Descriptions

Descriptions are the essential qualities that define a person or thing and probably won’t change anytime soon. These descriptions can be names, physical descriptions, nationalities, and even religions.

Yo soy Raúl.
I am Raul.
Yo soy alta, morena, y delgada.
I am tall, dark-skinned, and thin.
Bob es inglés.
Bob is English.
Andrés es católico.
Andres is Catholic.

Find more on using ser with descriptions here!

2. Occupations

An occupation is what someone does for a living or as a hobby. Basically, if you're talking about how someone makes money or fills their time, you'll use ser.

Soy profesora de español.
I am a Spanish teacher.
Ellos son estudiantes.
They are students.
Mi padre era jardinero.
My father was a gardener.
Juanita es bailarina.
Juanita is a dancer.

Notice that the indefinite articles un, una, unos, and unasmay not be used when talking about occupations with ser. They're often only included if extra information following the occupation is given. Compare the following:


Es doctora.
She's a doctor.

Es una doctora que tiene vocación por ayudar a sus pacientes.
She's a doctor who's dedicated to helping her patients.

3. Characteristics

Characteristics are personality descriptions of a person. This category is included to hammer home the point that ser is used to talk about descriptions.

Amalia es inteligente, atrevida, y amable.
Amalia is intelligent, daring, and friendly.
Mi esposo es romántico y cariñoso.
My husband is romantic and caring.

4. Time

Time can refer to days, dates, years, and the time on the clock.

Hoy es miércoles.
Today is Wednesday.
Ayer fue mi cumpleaños.
Yesterday was my birthday.
Ahora es la una.
Right now it is one o’clock.
Son las cinco veinticinco.
It's five twenty-five.

Find more on using ser with time here!

5. Origin

The place a person or thing is from or the material something is made of can be considered an origin.

Celia es de España.
Celia is from Spain.
Este chocolate es de México.
This chocolate is from Mexico.
Las sillas son de madera.
The chairs are made of wood.
Mi anillo es de oro.
My ring is made of gold.

6. Relationships

Personal relationships, such as family ties, friendship, and romantic relationships, are also talked about using ser.

Lynne es mi madre.
Lynne is my mother.
Marcos es mi exnovio.
Marcos is my ex-boyfriend.
Juana es mi jefe.
Juana is my boss.

Find more on using ser with origins here!

Uses of Estar

Estar is used to indicate temporary states and locations. If that general rule doesn’t suffice, there are two acronyms that you can think of, PLACE and LoCo. PLACE stands for Position, Location, Action, Condition, and Emotion. LoCo stands for Locations and Conditions. Let's look at PLACE now.

1. Position

Position refers to the physical position or posture a person or thing is in.

Mi abuela está sentada.
My grandmother is seated.
Estaba acostada cuando me llamaste.
I was lying down when you called me.

2. Location

The location of someone or something describes where it is permanently, temporarily, or conceptually.

El baño está a la derecha de la sala.
The bathroom is to the right of the living room.
Estamos en el café ahora y estaremos en el cine en 20 minutos.
We are at the café right now and we will be at the movie theater in 20 minutes.
Mi abuelo está en la luna.
My grandfather is out of it.

Exception! The location of an event or party is described using ser, not estar.

La fiesta es en mi casa.(The party is at my house.)

Find more on using estar with locations here!

3. Actions

Estar is used to describe ongoing actions and is often followed by a present participle (such as lavando) or a past participle (such as muerto).

Estoy lavando los platos sucios.
I am washing the dirty dishes.
Estamos leyendo los periódicos.
We are reading the newspapers.
Mi bisabuelo está muerto.
My great-grandfather is dead.

Intriguingly, death in Spanish is seen as an ongoing action, not a permanent state, so estar is used to talk about being dead.

4. Conditions

Physical and mental conditions are described using estar. Things that are likely to vary over several hours, days, or even years can fall into this category.

Estoy tan cansada esta mañana.
I am so tired this morning.
Mis niños están enfermos hoy.
My children are sick today.
Mi padre está un poco loco.
My father is a little crazy.

Find more on using estar with conditions here!

5. Emotions

How a person is feeling at a certain moment is described using estar.

Estoy triste.
I am sad.
Ella está contenta porque recibió unas flores de su novio.
She is happy because she got some flowers from her boyfriend.

Meaning Changes With Ser and Estar Phrases

There are some words that can be used with both ser and estar to form verb phrases, and these take on different meanings depending on the verb. Here are some examples of these types of phrases.

Ser PhraseEnglishEstar PhraseEnglish
ser aburrido
to be boring
estar aburrido
to be bored
ser bueno
to be good
estar bueno
to be tasty/attractive
ser cansado
to be a tiring person
estar cansado
to be tired
ser grave
to be serious
estar grave
to be seriously ill
ser listo
to be clever
estar listo
to be ready
ser malo
to be bad
estar malo
to be ill
ser orgulloso
to be conceited or vain
estar orgulloso
to be proud
ser moreno
to be dark-skinned
estar moreno
to be tanned
ser pálido
to be pale-skinned
estar pálido
to be pale
ser pesado
to be heavy/to be boring
estar pesado
to be annoying
ser rico
to be rich
estar rico
to be tasty
ser seguro
to be safe
estar seguro
to be certain
ser verde
to be green
estar verde
to be unripe
ser viejo
to be old
estar viejo
to look old
ser vivo
to be sharp
estar vivo
to be alive
¿Lionel juega fútbol? - Sí, es bueno y es muy rico.
Lionel plays soccer? - Yes, he's good and he's very rich.
¿Está bueno el café? - Sí, está muy rico.
Is the coffee good? - Yes, it's quite tasty.
¡Qué cansado eres! Ya deja de hablar de ti mismo.
How tiring you are! Stop talking about yourself already.
Si estás cansado, te puedes acostar en el sofá.
If you're tired, you can lie down on the couch.

Want to learn more about other tricky Spanish verb pairs? Check out these articles!

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