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Ser and Estar: what are other ways to use these Spanish verbs?

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Previously, we learned about the main difference between ser and estar . We know both mean to be, but ser is used to refer to permanent situations while estar is used to describe temporary conditions. Although this contrast is a good guideline, there are other uses of these verbs. For example, did you know we use ser for talking about the location of events? Let’s find out what the other exceptions are!

Specific uses of the verb ser

The verb ser has some uses that don’t strictly fall under the ‘permanent situations’ category. In this section we’ll learn how to use ser for those specific cases. 

  • Location of an event

We already know that to identify the location of people or objects, we use the verb estar (Estoy en la escuela [I’m at the school]). In contrast, when talking about events (for example, a concert or a lesson), we need to use the verb ser. This might be tricky since events are not considered permanent, but they’re an exception:

La conferencia es en el auditorio principal.  The conference is in the main auditorium.

  • Quantity

If you want to refer to the total number of members in a group, then the verb ser is the best choice: 

En la clase de español somos 20 estudiantes.
Understood:
There are 20 students in Spanish class.
Literal: In the Spanish class we are 20 students.

 IMPORTANT:

        If you want to refer to a partial number of members in a group, estar is a better choice. Can you guess why? Because we’re talking about a temporary situation. Look at the example below:

En la clase de español somos 20 estudiantes, pero hoy solo estamos 10. 
Understood: There are 20 students in Spanish class, but only 10 today.
Literal: In the Spanish class we are 20 students, but today there’s only 10 of us.

 

  • Price

You probably know the verbs valer and costar to talk about prices, but did you know it is also possible to use the verb ser for this purpose? We can use the verb ser to ask for the price and also to mention the price in the response. Here’s an example: 

¿Cuánto es? - Son cinco dólares. How much is it? - It’s five dollars. 

In some countries, you’ll hear people ask “¿cuánto es…?” followed by a noun corresponding to the thing for which we’re asking the price: 

¿Cuánto es un café y una medialuna? Son cinco dólares. 
How much is a coffee and a croissant? It’s five dollars.

.  Exception!

In Spanish, we can also use the verb estar to refer to prices, but only if we want to emphasize on the changing condition of the price in currency and even in open markets: 

El dólar está a 700 pesos chilenos. The dollar is at 700 Chilean pesos.
Hoy los tomates están a 25 pesos el kilo. Today tomatoes are at 25 pesos per kilo.

 

  • Assessments or opinions

Whenever we want to give our opinion on the quality of something or someone, we can use the verb ser

Este libro es muy bueno. This book is very good.

In this example we use the verb ser to make an assessment of the whole book; we’ve already read it and we think it’s good. 

 IMPORTANT:

     If we want to make an assessment of something in progress (for example, a book we’re currently reading), then it’s better to use estar

Este libro está muy bueno. This book is very good.

In this example I’m not done reading the book, but so far I think it’s very good. It might change, but right now this is the assessment I can make of it. 

Specific uses of the verb estar

The verb estar tends to be used to refer to temporary situations or conditions, or to indicate change. Let’s see these cases and some examples.

  • Indication of change

Previously we saw that we use ser for description, but there are some exceptions. We can use the verb estar to emphasize a temporary situation, or to compare it with the usual or previous one. Look at the table below: 

Screen Shot 2021-07-14 at 11.16.45 AM

In a) we’re referring to a temporary, current situation that is not definite and might change in the future. Who knows? I might meet the love of my life soon and marry them!

In b) we are comparing a current situation with the norm. In this particular example, we mean to say being lucid at 95 is not always common. 

In c) we’re comparing a current situation to a past situation. In our example, we’re describing how tall the boy is compared to the last time we saw him. 

  IMPORTANT:

With the adjective muerto/muerta [dead] we use the verb estar because we’re comparing a present situation with a past one. You might want to use the verb ser thinking that death is a permanent thing, right? But you need the verb estar in this case: 

Mi gato está muerto. My cat is dead.

 

  • Dates and seasons

Do you remember we said that we use ser for date and time? Well, that’s right. But it is possible to use the verb estar when asking or telling the time. This is quite colloquial and only used with the conjugation for nosotros. Notice that we use the preposition a to connect the verb estar and the date:  

¿A qué día estamos? - Estamos a 15 de junio.  What is the date today? - It’s June 15.

We can use estar in a very similar way with seasons, but in this case remember to use the preposition en

Ahora estamos en otoño acá en ChileIt’s Autumn here in Chile.  

  • Temperature

Did you know we can also use the verb estar to talk about the temperature? If you want to mention the temperature you’re currently experiencing, estar is the right choice: 

Hoy estamos a 15 grados en Santiago.  It’s 15 degrees in Santiago today.

Hoy en Bogotá están a 17 grados.  In Bogotá it’s 17 degrees today.

  • Expressions with estar that indicate temporary situations

Finally, there are some expressions with the verb estar that are used to express very specific temporary situations. Here’s an example: 

Estoy a punto de terminar mi lección. I’m about to finish my lesson.

Do you want to learn more expressions with the verb estar? In this list you’ll find some of the most common ones.

Adjectives that can be used with both ser and estar

There are some adjectives in Spanish that can be used with both ser and estar but change their meaning depending on the verb choice. For example, ser listo (to be clever) and estar listo (to be ready). If you want to learn more about them, don’t miss this short article!

Conclusion 

As you can see, the uses of ser and estar in Spanish go beyond the permanent/temporary contrast. Let’s recap the new uses we’ve learned today with these tables

Here’s a short summary of the uses of ser and estar we’ve covered in our posts (more coming soon!) so you can study the uses and examples to reinforce what you’ve just learned. Also, we’ve created this activity to practice some uses of ser and estar. There’s a key included for you to check your work. Happy learning!

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Natalia Molina Ceballos

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