Table of contents Chapter 8 8.2 Use of ser for description of characteristics

Chapter 8: Ser and Estar; Gerund and Passive voice

  8.2 Use of ser for description of characteristics of a subject

Both ser and estar are translated into English as to be. In Spanish, there is a difference in the meaning of ser and estar. A first rule for using of estar was already given, which says that estar is more related to a location or a temporary condition. In the same way, we can assume a general rule for ser, which says that characteristics that are inherent to a subject are described with the verb ser. Furthermore it's quite a nice rule of thumb to say that after estar it's rather unusual to put a noun. Some few exceptions might be possible like:

Es medico, pero ahora está de camarero = He is a doctor but at the moment he is a waiter.

However, for other characteristics and features of subjects ser is used:

  falsch: Maria está estudiante
richtig: Maria es estudiante = Maria is a student

  In connection with a noun ser used (in the very most of the cases)
Maria es una mujer. = Maria is a woman. (inherent feature)
Maria es rubia. = Maria is blond. (inherent feature)
Nosotros somos ingleses. = We are English. (inherent feature)

 In connection with an adjective it is to be decided whether ser or estar is to be used
Ella está contenta. = She is content (temporary condition)
Nosotros estamos decepcionados. = We are disappointed. (temporary condition)
Maria está cansada. = Maria is tired. (temporary condition)
Ella es guapa. = She is pretty. (inherent feature)
Ella es lista. = She is clever. (inherent feature)

Ser is used when the feature of the subject described is an inherent feature of the subject:

Juan es médico.
= Juan is a doctor.
Jaime es un imbécil.
= Jaime is an idiot.
Es una persona muy gentil.
= He is a nice person.
Madrid es la capital de España.
= Madrid is the capital of Spain.
Éramos cinco cuando partimos y cuatro cuando volvimos.
= We were five when we left and four when we came back.
  El Tower es un monumento impressionante.
= The Tower is an impressive monument.

  estar is used when describing a temporary condition
El café está caliente. = The coffee is hot.
Estamos muy cansados. = We are tired.
Está sin dinero.= He has no money. (He is without money.)

  estar is used when a location is described
Madrid is in Spain. = Madrid está en España.
He is in Berlin. = Él está en Berlín.
He was in Paris. = Él estaba en Paris.
The hat was in the box. = El sombrero estuvo en la caja.
The yoghurt was in the fridge = El yogurt estaba en el refrigerador.