Learning Spanish: TO BE OR NOT TO BE: “ser o no ser” or “estar o no estar”

One phrase in English becomes two in Spanish. See how the meaning changes. In English “to be” as well as “ser” in Spanish refer both to an intrinsic quality of the subject; for instance: “I am good” means “Soy bueno(a)”.

In Spanish, however, things get a little more complicated. Whereas in English, “to be” is used when referring to physical locations such as in “I am in Florida”, in Spanish, “ser” is not used when referring to location. Instead, “estar” is used. “Estoy en Florida” is then the correct translation for “I am in Florida”. Another difference between “ser” and estar” is that “ser” bears a permanent condition, as in “ser gordo” versus “estar” as in “estar gordo” which bears a temporary condition.

If someone tells you “estás gordo” (estás is the second person conjugation of the verb estar), it really means “you are fat now”. Maybe you were not fat before and you will not be in the future, but you are at this very moment.

As you can see, in order to convey the present state of “estás gordo” in English, we need to either add the word “now”; to replace the verb form “are” with “look” as in “you look fat” or to completely change the sentence into something like “you have gained weight”. On the other hand, if someone said “eres gordo” (eres is the second person conjugation of the verb ser), this person means that you are permanently fat; no need to add the time adverb “ahora” (now).

Another example? “Your are handsome” = “eres guapo” (permanent condition) versus “you look handsome” = “estás guapo” (temporary condition). Now answer these questions: “¿eres de los Estados Unidos?” (are you from the US?) and “estás en los Estados Unidos?” (are you in the US?)

By Andreina Ojeda, M.A. Modern Languages and M.A. International Studies.
President and Founder of Lingua Language Center at Broward College.