One question many of my students ask me, usually not long after they start studying Spanish, is ‘Why are there two verbs which mean the same?’ quickly followed by ‘How do I know which to use?’
Many teachers will fob their students off with ‘Estar is temporary, Ser is permanent’. That’s misleading, and while for a complete beginner it might be an easy fix, it then becomes harder to ‘unlearn’ it. Because it really doesn’t work that way.
When I’m teaching Spanish, I have found that it works better for most students to learn to use SER & ESTAR correctly, before they necessarily learn why. That way, most of the time they will instinctively use the correct one. First I teach the use of ESTAR to tell the position of something. Then ESTAR with the gerundio to say what someone is doing (the present continuous). Then we use ESTAR for describing the condition of someone or something or someone’s mood. Meanwhile we’ll also be using SER to tell the time, to show possession, for physical description & so on.
Eventually though, the day comes when explanations have to be given….
ESTAR essentially has four uses : Position, mood, condition & ‘INGs’ Don’t be tempted to think of ESTAR being ‘temporary’ – after all Madrid is in Spain, & we use ESTAR to say that – Madrid está en España. There’s nothing temporary about it at all – that’s the position of the city – & more than likely always will be!
With the present continuous we’re using ESTAR with the gerundio (the ING) to tell of a continuing action: Estamos estudiando. We are studying.
To tell about the condition of something: La mesa está sucia. The table is dirty.
For a person’s mood: Mi hermana está aburrida. My sister is bored.
SER has rather more uses: It is used to describe the character or inherent physical characteristics of someone or something. So we use it when we are describing what someone or something looks like, is made of, or someone’s personality, or where they are from, their nationality, their occupation. It is also used to show possession, & the time of day, or the date. It will be used for religious or political affiliation, & the relationship between people. Also where an event, such as a wedding, show or meeting, is taking place.
Physical description: El chico es alto. The boy is tall.
What something is made of: La mesa es de madera The table is (made) of wood.
A person’s character or personality: Mi hermana es aburrida. My sister is boring.
Occupation: Es profesor. He’s a teacher.
Where someone is from & their nationality: Mi amigo es de Francia. Es francés. My friend is from France. He’s French.
Possession: Son mis zapatos nuevos. They’re my new shoes.
Time of day & date: Son las seis de la tarde & es miércoles el once de marzo 2015. It’s 6pm & it’s Wednesday 11th March 2015.
Religious & political affiliation: Son católicos. They’re catholic. Es socialista . He’s socialist.
Relationships: Son hermanos. They’re brothers.
The location of an event: La boda es en la iglesia. The wedding is in the church.
I’m often asked if it really matters if you get it wrong. Sometimes it won’t matter too much, especially if you’re speaking to someone who is used to foreigners speaking Spanish & is able to guess what you mean. But frequently it can cause problems.
For example – if you say ¿Dónde son tus padres?
What do you mean? In fact it might as well be gibberish. It means nothing.
Do you want to say ‘Where are your parents?’ or ‘Where are your parents from?’
You’ve actually said neither………
‘Where are your parents?’ is ¿Dónde están tus padres?
‘Where are your parents from?’ is ¿De dónde son tus padres?
So a Spanish speaker would have no idea at all what you mean. Did you use the wrong verb, or did you forget the ‘de’??
There are also many times when using the wrong verb totally changes the meaning of an adjective………. Here are a few examples – but there are many more
Es listo – he’s clever
Está listo – he’s ready
La manzana es verde – the apple is green (colour)
La manzana está verde – the apple is green (unripe)
Mi hermana es aburrida – my sister is boring
Mi hermana está aburrida – my sister is bored
Javier es borracho – Javier is a drunk
Javier está borracho – Javier is drunk (at the moment)
Ana es interesada – Ana is selfish
Ana está interesada – Ana is interested
Jorge es cansado – Jorge is tiresome
Jorge está cansado – Jorge is tired
So you see – you sometimes need to be really careful, or you could be insulting someone, or at the very least, giving the wrong impression!
So how on earth are we supposed to remember all that? I teach C A M P…… Condition – Action(ING) – Mood – Position (of a physical ‘thing’). If it isn’t CAMP…it’s SER.
The only thing that ‘Position’ doesn’t cover is the position/location of an EVENT, For EVENTS we use SER.