In this chapter, I will try to explain the differences and contrasts between using the verb “ser” instead “estar” and vice versa with examples.
Before starting, keep in mind the previous lesson where we learned that “ser” is used to describe and talk inherent and unchangeable characteristics while “estar” is used to describe and talk about changeable ones. However, as I explained to you before, there are many exceptions whose reason has origin in the religion and culture. Some of those exceptions may make sense for you, some other not.
Differences and contrasts
Let's start with some exercises to get into context and reflect a little about the Spanish grammar,
Yo estoy feliz. -> I am happy.
We learned that feelings, moods, and conditions are changeable and it is for that reason that we use “estar” instead of “ser”. However, what would you think if I say to you “yo soy feliz”? Would you think it is grammatically correct?
The answer is yes, “yo soy feliz” is grammatically correct. Nevertheless, “Yo estoy feliz” and “Yo soy feliz” have different meanings. Take your time and try to think what the difference is.
When someone says, “yo estoy feliz” means that he or she feels happy in that moment. It is not a permanent feeling or mood. It could be because that person got good news, high score, prize, etc.
In the case “yo soy feliz”, “ser” refers to something permanent, that is why a person who say “yo soy feliz” means “I am a happy person”. This is because this person may feel satisfied with his/her life, he or she have a wonderful family and have everything he or she needs. As you can imagine, not many people say “yo soy feliz”, since happiness is not always something easy to reach.
The same happens with “yo estoy triste” and “yo soy triste”. However, Spanish native spearkers avoid the second one for obvious reasons. Saying “you are a sad person” could be very rude.
Note: In Spanish, the rest of the feelings admit only the verb “estar”, as we learned before.
This is a good example where using the wrong verb could get you in trouble, and that is why this lesson is important.
I would like to highlight that the intention of this lesson is not memorizing each exercise, the main idea is you to become aware of the importance of choosing the right verb.
I know many students could find it annoying, but in my experience most students overcome this challenge with some practice.
“Él está enfermo” means that he has a transitory disease, such as cold, flu, indigestion, diarrhea, or something more serious such as cancer. It is because “estar” refers to something transitory as we learned before.
On the other hand, “Él es enfermo” denotes a negative meaning, because “ser” refers to something permanent. In this case, the meaning could be 1. He has an incurable disease; 2. He was born with a genetic disease; 3. He has a mental disease; or 4. He is a morbid person. As you see, all the meanings are negative and the last one (4) could be interpreted in a very rude way, that is why “Él es enfermo” must be used carefully to offend nobody.
This exercise is very similar to the previous one and I am sure you can guess the difference between both sentences.
“Ella está loca” means that she is acting as a crazy person because something bad happened to her. As you know, when people are very angry, they act like crazy people. However, it does not mean that person has a real metal problem.
“Ella es loca”, means that she has a real mental problem, and she needs medical care.
Note: if you are joking with your friends and family, the differences do not matter. However, when you are holding a serious conversation is important you to keep in mind the differences. Otherwise, some people can feel offended.
I believe this exercise does not need a mayor explanation. “Miguel está sucio” refers to being dirty temporarily (after doing exercise, playing in the mud, repairing a car). On the other hand, “Miguel es sucio” refers to a dirty person who never takes a shower and has bad hygiene habits.
So, as you see in the explanation above, using the wrong verb could lead to a misunderstanding or an awkward situation.
Correct and incorrect uses
Here I would like to show you some examples where only one of the verbs is the right option.
Let’s think about it…
The light or lamp can shift on and off, right? so, is it a changeable or unchangeable state? It is changeable, right! It means the only right way is the verb “estar”. Therefore, the right sentence would be “La lampara está encendida” and “La lampara está apagada”.
It is my favorite example, and I almost sure you know the right answer based on the previous example.
La puerta está cerrada.
La puerta está abierta.
But, is it possible to say, “la puerta es abierta/cerrada”? The answer is no. The doors are designed to be open and closed which is a changeable behavior.
However, always in class there is a student who asks me, what if the door is closed permanently? Or, it cannot be open? My answer is very simple, if a door can not be opened, it is not a door but a wall. That is why we must always use the verb “estar” in this case and similar ones.
The state of a battery is changeable, right? Unfortunately, there is not such as a battery with unlimited charge. Therefore, the right verb is “estar” and the verb “ser” is a mistake.
La batería está cargada.
La batería está descargada.
So far, I think everything is comprehensible. Nevertheless, I would like to increase the challenge a little more.
Let’s see the following example below,
Which verb would you pick to describe both images above?
1. El camión es/está pesado.
2. La pluma es/está liviana.
In both cases, most of the students in the classroom pick the verb “ser”. Because a truck is always heavy, and a feather is always light (the weight is unchangeable), and they are right. The proper verb to describe both images is the verb "ser" and I say "proper" because I have news that we can also use the verb "estar" in case of the truck. Why? We will see the reason below.
This explanation about the use of the verb “estar” should be in the previous lesson. However, I decided that this is the best moment to explain it. One of the uses I did not explain about the verb “estar” is that it is used to compare before and after. Let me give you some examples and you will understand.
Let’s go back to the precious example of the truck above,
We agree that a truck is always heavy, it is inherent characteristic of any truck. That is why we use the verb “ser”. Nevertheless, we also can say, “El camión está pesado”, but why?
When a speaker says “El camión está pesado” means that the truck is heavier than usual or heavier than before.
Let’s say that the weight of the empty truck is 1 ton and for a truck driver 1 ton is light due to demission and capabilities of the truck.
Then the same truck is loaded with 5 tons of charge. Therefore, there is a big difference between weight before and after. To express this difference, the speaker (the truck drive) can use the verb “estar” as the example below.
In both cases, the speaker is comparing the weight condition (conditions are changeable) of the truck, before and after, and the verb “estar” is very helpful to describe those differences.
If you haven't understood yet, be patient. I will give you more examples below.
Let’s say your friend's bathroom is usually or always dirty. In that case, we are talking about an unchangeable characteristic of your friend’s bathroom. That is why we could say “el baño de mi amigo es sucio”. However, you friend washed the bathroom today and it looks very clean, in that case when you open the door and see the difference you may say “el baño de mi amigo está limpio”.
When you say something “está” limpio you are referring that something is clean just in this moment or something that used to be dirty but now is clean.
Let’s say that last time we met Pablo was in 2012 and today we met him again. We are surprised about his makeover. Therefore, we want to express our thoughts about his new appearance. In order to do it, we must use the verb “estar” for example, “Pablo está gordo” (It means Pablo used to be thin and now he is fat.). But, can we always say “Pablo está gordo” since we met him? The answer is no. We only use “estar” to emphasize in his makeover. If nothing has changed after the last meeting, using the verb "estar" would not make sense since it is used to express that something has changed (comparison between before and after).
It is the last example, and at this point, I believe a full explanation is not necessary.
A brief explanation would be enough.
1. El examen es difícil. (The exam is always/usually difficult)
1. El examen está fácil. (The exam this time is easier than before/usual)
2. El examen es fácil. (The exam is always easy)
2. El examen está difícil. (The exam is harder than before/normal)
Let’s see some important exceptions you must keep in mind.
1. To be dead -> “ser” or “estar” muerto.
Your common sense is telling you that the right answer is “ser” because the death is unchangeable. Have you seen a zombie walking on the street? No, right! It only happens in the movies and tv series. However, the religion has an important influence in our language, and most Spanish speakers are catholic, and catholics believe in the live after death, in other words, death is not unchangeable for catholics. According to the bible, we will revive someday when Jesus Christ come to visit us in the earth. That is why the correct way in this case would be “Michael está muerto”.
2. Today is Monday -> “ser” or “estar” lunes.
Choosing the right verb may depend on how you approach it. For students their logical thinking may suggest that “estar” is the proper verb since days changes, today is Monday tomorrow is Tuesday, and it makes sense. However, from the Spanish speaker’s point of view, today is Monday and I cannot change it. In other words, I cannot call my boss and say to him that I am not going to work today since I decided to change the day today from Monday to Sunday. Unfortunately, life is not that simple.
The same applies for dates,
Hoy es lunes.
Hoy es 25 de diciembre de 2020.
Note: the days of the week and months are not written with capital letters.
3. I am married/single -> “ser” or “estar” casado/soltero.
Talking about this in class is very controversial but fun at the same time. The answer may vary depending on the beliefs of the speaker. A conservative person would prefer using “ser” because they believe marriage is forever (unchangeable). Nevertheless, liberal or progressive people may choose “estar” since for them marriage is not forever, it is a condition that may changes. So, in this case, feel free to use the verb that most matches with your beliefs.
4. To be torn/broken -> “ser” or “estar” roto/partido/dañado.
Based on our language everything can be fixed or repairable. I think the reason is that in the past most of the things could be fixed. Even a broken heart (sorry to be cheesy). Nowadays, technology and our consumption system have been changed a lot and many things cannot be fixed or it is cheaper to buy a new product instead of fixing it.
I think everybody has a grandma who has a porcelain figure, or a beautiful cup fixed with some glue on the shelf of the living room. Maybe not? Therefore, the correct sentences are,
El pantalón está roto.
La botella está partida.
La computadora está dañada.
5. The sun is hot -> El sol “es” or “está” caliente.
We learned in the previous lesson that temperature is changeable, but for obvious reason the sun is an exception. The reason is because the sun has been hot since it is in the sky, our ancestors used to believe that the sun will be hot eternally as they did not have enough knowlage of stars and science. Althought it is not true, the point is that probably, mankind will disappear before sun gets cold someday. Therefore, the correct way is,
El sol es caliente.