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Ser and Estar, Advanced Uses

Can you ever say “es feliz” or “está bueno” in Spanish? And what do phrases like “fue hecha” mean? Let’s go through some advanced uses of Ser and Estar. We’ll get lots of spoken practice with these nuances in real-life Spanish sentences.

Full Podcast Episode


Somos felices.

Intro: Join us on a rigorous, step-by-step journey to fluency. I’m Timothy and this is LearnCraft Spanish.

Today we’re going to explore some uses of Ser and Estar that fall outside the standard uses that we learned at the beginning of this show.

As we’ve reinforced for hundreds of episodes now, the verb Ser is used to describe what something is or who someone is. The verb Estar is used to talk about where they are or how they are. If you can remember that Ser is for what something is and Estar is for how something is, that, by itself, is already almost enough to help you get this right most of the time.

Now some teachers wrongly teach that Ser is used for permanent things and Estar is used for temporary things. This is a myth. So for example, Bogotá está en Colombia, and it’s there permanently, but because it’s where it is, we have to use Estar, not Ser. We could never use Ser in that sentence. Or how about Es una noche muy linda. It won’t always be a very pretty night; in fact, it might only be a pretty night for a few minutes. But because we’re describing what it is, you can’t ever use Estar in that sentence. It has to be Ser.

Today, we’re going to dig into some more nuanced situations, including some situations where the question of “temporary” versus “permanent” is actually relevant. Yes, there are some situations where that’s the case, and that’s probably what helped cause the temporary-versus-permanent myth that confuses so many students.

But let’s begin by emphasizing that some things are just not flexible, and we’ll start with the most important rule that we’ve learned: If a “to be” verb is used right before a noun, if what the verb links to is a noun, that “to be” verb will always, ALWAYS be Ser. There’s no exception to this rule. So for example:

My dog is my best friend.

Mi perro es mi mejor amigo.

Now, if you start a sentence with “my dog is”, there are a bunch of different directions that could go. You could say “my dog is here”, or “my dog is walking toward the house”, or “my dog is sad”. We could also say “my dog is at the house”, which does have a noun after “is”, but there’s a preposition involved, so the word “is” is not linking to a noun. So in all of those cases, we’d use Estar or maybe Andar. But if the thing that comes after “my dog is” is a noun, then we’ll always, always use Ser.

Now, here’s one case where we’ve learned to use Estar:

My dog is happy.

Mi perra está feliz.

We’re using Estar because we’re talking about how the dog is doing, not what the dog is.

But what about this sentence:

She is a happy dog.

Hmm. We’re talking about the fact that the dog is happy. But “a happy dog” is a noun. In sentences like this, we always have to use Ser. So the Spanish is:

Ella es una perra feliz.

So what we mean here is not that different from “she is happy”. But now we’re describing what she is, because we’re describing her with a noun after the linking verb.

Now here’s where we’re going to do something surprising. We can actually describe her as a happy dog, as what she is, simply using the adjective feliz after the verb. Here’s what that would look like:

The dog is(Ser) happy.

La perra es feliz.

This is surprising, because we’ve been taught that how she is, such as happy or sad or lonely, is supposed to be associated with Estar. But we ARE allowed to use Ser with these types of descriptions if what we are trying to do is describe what kind of dog it is. It’s basically like saying that a happy dog is what type of dog it is.

And actually, the confusing thing is that the verb Ser is actually pretty often used along with feliz, or with other feelings. Here’s another example:

I want to go back to that city; I was very happy there.

Quiero regresar a esa ciudad; fui muy feliz allí.

So here the speaker decided to say fui feliz instead of estuve feliz. What she’s saying is that she was a happier person when she was in that city. You’ll notice that this is yet another case where Ser is used to describe something temporary, not permanent. But still, the sense is different from if the speaker used Estar, because they’re describing it almost as if their identity was different, who they were as a person was different, when they were in that city.

Let’s look at a few more examples where Ser is being used with adjectives that we normally associate with Estar.

In this first one, we’re describing a situation as “sad”, not as how it feels, but as what it is — a sad situation.

This is very sad, we should talk about it.

Esto es muy triste, deberíamos hablar de ello.

She is happy(Ser) and that’s why she likes everything.

Ella es feliz y por eso le gusta todo.

He is crazy, you can’t talk to him.

Él es loco, no puedes hablar con él.

All right, so in all of these cases, we could have used either Estar or Ser, but it changes the sense. And in all of these sentences, what we’re using are adjectives. Again, it’s important to emphasize that you can never use Estar when the description is a noun, such as “he was a lonely boy”; you’d always use Ser in those cases.

Next, let’s look at something a little different. All of the adjectives we’ve been using so far, such as feliz, triste, and loco, are adjectives that we normally associate with Estar, but we’ve shown how they can sometimes be used with Ser. Next, can we do the opposite, using some of our Ser adjectives with Estar instead? For example, we’ve learned that the adjective bueno is used to describe what something is, as a part of its identity, so we use it with Ser, whereas bien, the adverb, is used with Estar.

And this is where things get a bit hairy. So actually, you CAN sometimes use Estar with some of our adjectives that we’ve normally associated with Ser. For example:

The food from that place was good today.

La comida de ese lugar estuvo buena hoy.

This is one of the trickiest nuances to deal with when we’re working with Ser and Estar. In this sentence, we could have just as easily said that the food fue buena hoy. But native speakers DO sometimes use Estar with some of the adjectives we normally associate with Ser.

And this only happens in some specific, idiomatic cases. So for example, you’ll often hear Estar used along with bueno to describe food, or maybe something else that you enjoy. But you won’t hear it used to describe your dog; you wouldn’t say mi perro estuvo bueno hoy.

So using Estar with adjectives that we normally associate with Ser is very tricky business. In general, it will only happen when what you’re describing is someone’s subjective experience of something or someone, not when you’re describing who they are or what they are in general.

I’ll also point out another thing about it: This is pretty much the one case where it IS relevant to consider whether the attribute that you’re describing is temporary or permanent. So for example:

Their food is(Estar) so good!

¡Su comida está muy buena!

In this case, the speaker decided to use Estar, because they’re saying that the food from the place is good, but they’re saying it in terms of their temporary experience of the food, not as a value judgment of what the place’s food is like in general.

Here’s a similar example:

You’re very pretty!

¡Estás muy bonita!

So here we’re saying estás instead of eres. If we said eres muy bonita, we’d be saying that they’re a very pretty person in general. But instead, the speaker used estás because they’re emphasizing how the person looks in the moment.

Let’s look at some more examples where Estar is used along with adjectives that we normally associate with Ser.

This food isn’t(Estar) good, you can’t eat it.

Esta comida no está buena, no la puedes comer.

This room is(Estar) gorgeous for the party!

¡Esta habitación está hermosa para la fiesta!

She is(Estar) weird today, I don’t know why.

Está extraña hoy, no sé por qué.

She is going to a party, so she’s very pretty.

Va a una fiesta, entonces está muy bonita.

He's(Estar) so serious that he scares you

Está tan serio que te da miedo.

All right, now we’re going to do a quiz to practice using Ser and Estar in these nuanced ways. In each case, I’m going to present a little bit of context to give you a better idea of which verb you’ll use with the adjective.

In this first one, we’re talking about how the food is in this particular instance, so you’ll use Estar to refer to how the food tastes.

The food isn’t(Estar) good, I don’t like it.

La comida no está buena, no me gusta.

In the next one, we’re talking about someone who is not serious by nature, so we’ll use “estar” basically to say that she’s being serious.

She is(Estar) very serious today and I don’t know why.

Está muy seria hoy y no sé por qué.

In the next one we’re describing what a situation is, and we use Ser because a situation doesn’t have feelings; a sad situation is what it is.

This situation is sad, I don’t like it

Esta situación es triste, no me gusta.

In the next one, we’re talking about someone who is happy by nature, not someone who just feels happy at a particular moment or for a particular reason.

She never says anything because she is happy.

Nunca dice nada porque es feliz.

In the next one, the person I’m talking to isn’t objectively an old person at 19, but the way they’re behaving is like an old person, so we use Estar.

You might be only 19 years old, but you’re(Estar) old.

Puedes tener solo 19 años, pero estás viejo.

In the next one, we’re in a place that isn’t usually pretty, but today it’s pretty due to how it’s been arranged for a specific occasion.

I like what you did to this place, it’s(Estar) pretty.

Me gusta lo que le hiciste a este lugar, está bonito.

In the next one, I don’t think of you as a tall person, but compared to when I saw you last time, you seem tall.

I hadn’t seen you in years, you’re(Estar) tall!

No te había visto en años, ¡estás alto!

All right, let’s look at another unusual situation. In general, we use Ser for something’s identity and Estar for its current state or its location. But actually, and this really surprises most Spanish learners, Ser can sometimes be used for locations — specifically when what you’re describing is an event. Here’s an example:

The party is at Juan’s house.

La fiesta es en casa de Juan.

The reason for this is that the location of an event is considered a part of its identity, of what the event is — even though that’s not true of the locations of pretty much anything else you can think of. You could never use Ser to talk about the location of a person, of a city, or of any other physical thing. But for events, we do use Ser to talk about the location, and it’s actually improper to use Estar in these situations.

Let’s practice with a couple of examples, and I’m actually going to give you a couple of new nouns so that you can practice with a little bit of variety. In this next one, we’re just going to use the word for “party”, which you already know as fiesta.

The party was at my house.

La fiesta fue en mi casa.

The next one uses the word for “event”, which is the masculine noun evento.

I don’t know where the event is going to be.

No sé dónde va a ser el evento.

In the next one, we’ll use the word for “concert”, which is the masculine noun concierto.

The concert is going to be in that city.

El concierto va a ser en esa ciudad.

All right. Let’s explore one last use of Ser that goes outside what we’ve learned so far. Check out this sentence:

That thing is done every day.

This sentence uses the passive voice in English. We’re theoretically talking about “doing” something, but we’re not saying anything about who’s doing it; instead we just say that the thing “is done”. In these cases, we normally reword this in Spanish to use a reflexive.

Esa cosa se hace todos los días.

Literally “that thing does itself every day”. But in Spanish it’s understood that you mean that that thing “is done”.

But what if we change the sentence to say this:

That was done by María.

Hmm. Now we can’t use the reflexive, because there is actually someone who’s doing the things. To translate this sentence, we actually need to translate the passive voice in a completely different way. Here’s how we’d do it:

Eso fue hecho por María.

So what on earth happened here. We said fue hecho. What we’ve done is we’ve used a preterite form of Ser, fue, and then hecho, which is the participle of Hacer. This is a totally new construction that we haven’t covered before, and it gives completely new purposes to both the verb Ser and participles.

So the first thing to know about this is that this use of Ser has absolutely nothing to do with anything that we’ve previously learned about Ser! In fact, you can almost think of this as just a completely different verb with a different meaning. When Ser is used this way, it’s NOT being used to describe what someone or something is. It just has an entirely different purpose, to create the passive voice.

The second thing to know about this is that the participle is going to behave kind of like an adjective in this construction. So let’s look at another sentence that uses this construction:

The dog was found on the street.

El perro fue encontrado en la calle.

So we said fue encontrado. But if we’re talking about a girl dog, we’ll use encontrada.

La perra fue encontrada en la calle.

Or, to go back to our first example, we can change “that was done by María” to:

Those things were done by María.

Esas cosas fueron hechas por María.

So here we said hechas, which is a pretty weird word, but it’s the plural feminine version of hecho.

Let’s explore a few more examples that use this new version of the passive voice.

The food is made by that man every day.

La comida es hecha por ese hombre todos los días.

Those things will be found soon.

Esas cosas serán encontradas pronto.

The homework was finished last night.

La tarea fue terminada anoche.

Now, how do you know whether to interpret an English passive sentence as a reflexive or using Ser and a participle? In general, Ser with a participle sounds a bit more formal than just using a reflexive. So for example, es encontrado sounds a bit more formal than se encuentra.

But for one-time events, it’s more common to use the Ser version rather than the reflexive version. Also, if you’re saying that something is done by someone, you have to use Ser, then a participle, and then por, and then the person who does it, as we showed in the example eso fue hecho por María; that sentence can’t use a reflexive version of Hacer.

Let’s get some practice using Ser and participles to create the passive voice.

The food was made by those people.

La comida fue hecha por esas personas.

The things will be found by them.

Las cosas serán encontradas por ellos.

The project will be finished by next week.

El proyecto será terminado para la próxima semana.

The party would be thrown if it weren’t for you.

La fiesta sería hecha si no fuera por ti.

For more practice with any of this, feel free to dig deeper at LCSPodcast.com/208. Or if you’re ready, let’s go on to today’s final quiz.

She is getting married and the wedding is in that place.

Se casa y la boda es en ese lugar.

He didn’t love her, but I love her.

Él no la amaba, pero yo la amo.

I want to sleep before the meeting.

Quiero dormir antes de la reunión.

I want him to have success in the race.

Quiero que tenga éxito en la carrera.

They were going to get married, but they are in a fight.

Se iban a casar, pero están en una pelea.

The wedding is near my house.

La boda es cerca de mi casa.

If you get married, you will be happy.

Si te casas, serás feliz.

The party will be at his house, so bring good songs.

La fiesta será en su casa, así que lleva canciones buenas.

The house is(Estar) pretty, this party will be a surprise!

La casa está bonita, ¡esta fiesta será una sorpresa!

You’re gorgeous with those clothes, but remember that the party is not at a house.

Estás hermosa con esa ropa, pero recuerda que la fiesta no es en una casa.

She sleeps a lot, but you still love her.

Ella duerme mucho, pero igual la amas.

This food is(Estar) good, I think it was made with a lot of love.

Esta comida está buena, creo que fue hecha con mucho amor.

The deal has been made by the two men.

El negocio ha sido hecho por los dos hombres.

He is still sleeping, so this must be a mistake.

Él aún está durmiendo, así que esto debe ser un error.

To their surprise, the music was made without lyrics.

Para su sorpresa, la música fue hecha sin letra.

The task is done by her.

La tarea es hecha por ella.

He didn’t come up with an idea in case of an attack.

No se le ocurrió una idea en caso de un ataque.

I’m getting married because she loves me.

Me caso porque ella me ama.

The accident was sad.

El accidente fue triste.

He hadn’t gotten married.

Él no se había casado.

He is serious now because he is on a mission.

Está serio ahora porque está en una misión.

I am(Ser) happy and that’s why I finished my degree program.

Soy feliz y por eso terminé mi carrera.

His career is sad and he knows it.

Su carrera es triste y él lo sabe.

He hasn’t slept and that’s why he hasn’t come up with good ideas.

No ha dormido y por eso no se le han ocurrido buenas ideas.

He doesn’t come up with a good letter for his name.

No se le ocurre una buena letra para su nombre.

For more practice with all of this, go to LCSPodcast.com/208.

In tomorrow’s episode, we’ll learn a bunch of simple nouns related to health and the human body, including the words for “medicine”, “nurse”, and “medic”.

This show is brought to you by LearnCraftSpanish.com. The Spanish voice in this episode was our coach Ximena Lama-Rondón. Our music was performed by the Seattle Marimba Quartet, and I’m Timothy, encouraging you to do the hard work of learning Spanish. Acquiring a second language is one of the most fulfilling things you can do, so start your fluency journey today at LCSPodcast.com.

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