Understanding the Differences Between 'ser' and 'estar'

By Eric W. Vogt

The problems surrounding the differences in usage of these two verbs have caused unnecessary problems. This brief lesson plan explains, with some examples, a way to help your students escape from the confusion.

There is a difference between the two Spanish verbs meaning to be; ser and estar. Distinguishing their usage is one of the most mismanaged topics in all of Spanish pedagogy. Where there should be clarity, there has been obscurantism and misinformation. This lesson plan is designed to cut the illusion of a problem down to size for beginners.

I have what I like to call the ninety-percent rule – meaning that if students follow this rule, even blindly, they will be right ninety percent of the time. The ninety-percent rule about ser and estar means that we must leave for later the use of ser and estar with adjectives as well as the use of these verbs as auxiliary verbs for the passive and progressive, but the rule I am about to offer lays a strong foundation for the future.

It is stated simply: “Estar is used for health and location. Ser is for everything else."Examine these examples: "¿Dónde está la casa de Isabel?" and "¿Cómo estás?" They pretty much cover the problem of the usage of estar, at least for beginners.

Admittedly, speaking of the location of events requires ser: "¿Dónde es la fiesta de Isabel?" but this is a fine tuning that can be explained by noting that the place of the party is not the really the question, since the answer might be: “En casa de Isabel." which then will lead to the question of where her house is located – requiring estar in both the question and the reply.

As for what is meant by “everything else" referring to the usage of ser, can be expanded to the usual categories: identication, profession, physical characteristics and, with de to indicate material composition, ownership and origin. Examples: Juan es mexicano. Yo soy professor. Teresa es alta. La casa es de madera. El carro es de mi hermano. Maritere es de Guatemala.