The First Steps: Ser, Estar, and Hay

You probably know that the two most important “to be” verbs in Spanish are ser and estar. They are both irregular in their conjugation. The good news is that, because these two verbs are used so frequently, you'll memorize their forms in no time. Ser is completely irregular; estar only has an irregular yo form, but you also have to remember to add accents to some of the conjugations. Take a minute to review these two verbs in the simple present tense before we talk about how they are used.

Conjugation of Ser and Es tar

Subject Pronoun

Ser

Estar

yo

soy

estoy

eres

estás

él, ella, usted

es

está

nosotros

somos

estamos

vosotros

sois

estáis

ellos, ellas, ustedes

son

están

Essence or State of Being?

Why on earth would you need two verbs that mean “to be,” and how do you know when to use one or the other? Well, ser and estar have one major distinction that will help you decide which verb to use when. Ser primarily refers to the essence of something. It is used to identify and describe essential characteristics. Estar, on the other hand, refers to a state of being, and is used to describe physical and emotional conditions as well as to say where things are located. Take a look at some examples:

Ser and Es tar

Essence

State of Being

Nosotros somos Martín y Luisa.

Estamos en el parque.

We are Martin and Luisa. (identification)

We are in the park. (location)

Martín es amable.

Luisa está triste.

Martin is friendly. (essential characteristic)

Luisa is sad. (emotional state)

Los perros son simpáticos.

Mis perros están gordos.

Dogs are nice. (essential characteristic)

My dogs are fat. (physical condition)

Soy de Argentina.

Estoy en Chile de vacaciones.

I am from Argentina.

I am in Chile on vacation. (location)

(identify nationality)

Ser is the verb of choice to tell time in Spanish. You may prefer to think that time is a state of being since it changes constantly, but try to imagine each moment as having its own unique essence. That's the Spanish concept of time. Keep in mind too that, except for one o'clock, Spanish considers the hours to be plural, so you say Es la una (It's one o'clock) and Es la una y diez (It's one ten), but Son las doce (It's twelve o'clock) and Son las siete y media (It's seven thirty). The question ¿Qué hora es? is always singular.

There Is and There Are: Hay

This is one of those great cases where Spanish is simpler than English. All it takes is one little word, hay, to refer to the existence of something in the present. Hay is singular and plural, so you can use it to say everything from “There is a cup of coffee on the table” (Hay una taza de café en la mesa) to “There are a thousand people in the square” (Hay mil personas en la plaza) without worrying about any other verb form.

Practice: Hay, Ser, or Estar?

Decide if you need hay, ser, or estar to complete each sentence. You can check your answers in Appendix D.

  • Yo __________ en Caracas, Venezuela.

  • __________ mexicano, ¿verdad?

  • No __________ muchas personas en el restaurante.

  • ¿Qué hora __________ ?

  • El museo __________ en el centro de la ciudad.

  • Elena __________ enferma; va al doctor esta tarde.

  • Ellos __________ interesantes.

  • Nosotros no __________ contentos.

  • __________ un libro bueno en la mesa.

  • Yo __________ alta.

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  4. The First Steps: Ser, Estar, and Hay
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