Key Differences between Ser and Estar
As a general rule, ser expresses what something or someone is (being something or someone) while estar expresses where and how something or someone is in a moment in time (being somewhere or being in a state.)
The verb "ser"
The verb ser is used when describing the essential qualities or characteristics of a person or object. It’s used for things inherent to the subject, or to describe permanent states:
- Nós somos muito pacientes. (We are very patient.)
- A casa é grande. (The house is big.)
- Os meus olhos são verdes. (My eyes are green.)
It is also used to indicate the origin or identity of something or someone:
- Sou de Paris. (I’m from Paris)
- Tu és português. (You are Portuguese.)
The verb "estar"
The verb estar is used for things considered non-inherent to the subject, like a transient mood or temporary states, sometimes due to external action (to be dirty or broken, for example). It is also used to indicate the temporary location of something or someone.
- Eu estou em Paris. (I am in Paris.)
- Eu estou feliz. (I am happy [now].)
- Ele está cansado. (He is tired.)
- A casa está suja. (The house is dirty.)
How to know when to use one or the other?
There are some tricky situations in which by just changing the verb, you can change the whole meaning of the sentence. When in doubt think if the characteristic is temporary or inherent to the identity of the object.
Let’s look at the phrase “The weather is cold.”
If we use the verb ser it means it’s usually or always cold. We are talking about the climate.
- O tempo é frio, no Alaska. (The weather is cold, in Alaska.)
If we use the verb estar we are referring to a temporary situation.
- O tempo está frio, hoje (Today, the weather is cold.)
Here are more examples:
- A maçã está verde. (The apple is green. [It’s not ripe])
- A maçã é verde. (The apple is green. [Green is its actual colour])
- O meu carro é novo. (My car is new. [I just bought it])
- O meu carro está novo. (My car is new. [It’s in top condition, as good as new])
- Aquela marca de roupa é cara. (That clothing brand is expensive. [Their prices are always higher than average])
- O combustível está caro. (The gas is expensive. [At the moment, these days])
The verb "ser"
In general, we use ser in the following situations:
To identify things or people:
Aquele edifício é a Câmara Municipal. (That building is the City Hall.)
Eu sou o Alex. (I’m Alex.)
Tu és o namorado da Carmen, o Paulo? (Are you Carmen’s boyfriend, Paulo?)
To describe people or things
Descriptions are the essential qualities that define a person or thing and probably won’t change anytime soon. These descriptions can be names, physical descriptions, nationalities, occupations, civil status or even religions.
Eu sou português. (I am Portuguese.)
Vocês são solteiros? (You are single?)
Eu sou médico. (I’m a doctor.)
És inteligente. (You are smart.)
Ela é morena. (She is a brunette.)
Nós somos jovens. (We are young.)
Os pimentos são verdes, vermelhos ou amarelos. (Peppers are green, red or yellow.)
You might be saying to yourself that your profession or civil status is not permanent. You might change careers or get divorced, for example. Although that is true, in Portuguese it is appropriate to consider the profession, civil status and religion as essential traits even though any of them could eventually change in the future.
To indicate the origin of something or someone
Ele é de Chicago. (He is from Chicago.)
Nós somos de Barcelona. (We are from Barcelona.)
To indicate the material of something
A caneta é de metal. (The pen is made of metal.)
Estas cadeiras são de madeira. (These chairs are made of wood.)
To indicate possession
De quem são estes livros. (Whose books are these?)
É o meu carro. (It’s my car.)
To tell the time
São seis e meia. (It is six thirty.)
São nove e um quarto. (It is nine fifteen.)
É meia noite. (It is midnight.)
É uma da tarde. (It is one in the afternoon.)
For prices and quantities
Quanto é? (How much is it?)
São 30 euros. (It is 30 euros.)
For impersonal expressions
É necessário chamar um médico. (It is necessary to call a doctor.)
É hora de ir embora. (It is time to leave.)
Ser is an irregular verb, which means that it doesn’t follow the regular pattern for verb endings. But you’ll see the forms of ser so often that you’ll get lots of practice with them!
The verb "estar"
We typically use the verb estar when describing the temporary characteristics of an object or person, or to express how someone feels at a particular moment in time. There are certain rules below that can clear up some of the confusion around using the verb estar.
In general, we use the verb estar in the following situations:
To greet someone
Como está? (How are you?)
Estou bem, obrigado. (I’m fine, thank you.)
To indicate a temporary situation
The situation can be physical, mental, imaginary or a state of mind
Estou doente. (I am sick.)
Você está triste. (You are sad.)
Gosto de ver que estás bem. (I’m pleased to see you are all right.)
To indicate someone’s location or the location of a movable item
Ele está nos Açores. (He is in the Azores.)
O livro está à direita do candeeiro. (The book is to the right of the lamp.)
Os óculos estão em cima da mesa. (The glasses are on the table.)
To talk about the weather
Hoje está calor! (Today is hot!)
Está muito frio lá fora! (It is very cold outside!)
To talk about a characteristic that you need to try to know of
A sopa está salgada. (The soup is salty.)
O café está frio! (The coffee is cold!)
O leite não está bom, está azedo. (The milk isn’t good, it is sour.)
The verb "estar" in progressive tenses
It’s important to note that the verb estar is also used to form progressive tenses, such as the present continuous or the past continuous, which are used to talk about actions that are in progress.
- Ele está a comer. (He is eating.)
- Eu estou a chegar a casa. (I am arriving home.)
- Eles estavam a jogar póquer. (They were playing poker.)
- Nós estávamos a dormir. (We were sleeping.)
Estar is also an irregular verb that you’ll need to get lots of practice with!
Common mistakes made with "Ser" and "Estar"
Let’s see some of the most common and sometimes even funny mistakes that can happen if you don’t completely master the uses of estar and ser:
To be boring vs. To be bored
Here is one situation where it’s very important that you use the correct verb.
If you are bored, you say: Estou aborrecido(a).
If, instead, you use ser, it means that you are boring: Sou aborrecido(a).
Ser moreno(a) vs. Estar moreno(a)
In Portuguese, a brunette is said to be moreno(a) and in that case, the ver ser is used.
- A Carla é morena. (Carla is a brunnete.)
If the person is tanned, we use the verb estar, as it is a temporary condition.
- O Luís está moreno. (Luis is tanned.)
If you are running late make sure to use estar:
- Desculpa, estou atrasado(a). (Sorry, I’m late.)
If you use ser, people may laugh at you:
- Desculpa, sou atrasado(a). (Sorry, I’m retarded.)
Being dead or alive
Always use estar to describe dead things or people. For some reason, being dead or alive in Portuguese works as a temporary state:
- O pássaro está morto. (The bird is dead.)
- O meu bisavô está vivo. Tem 97 anos. (My great-granddad is alive. He’s 97 years old.)
Ser morto(a) has no actual meaning, it’s just grammatically incorrect. However, ser vivo can mean to be lively/animated or sharp.
O concerto é vs. O concerto está
When describing where a planned event takes place we use ser and not estar, even though we’re talking about the location.
- O concerto é na Casa da Música. (The concert is at Casa da Música.)
Keep in mind that when describing how the concert itself is going, we will use estar:
- O concerto está muito divertido. (The concert is very fun).
Ser doente vs. Estar doente
Generally, we use estar to talk about a temporary health state or condition.
- O Carlos está doente. Está com sarampo. (Carlos is sick. He has the measles.)
However, if referring to a chronic disease or condition that is permanent we use ser.
- A Ana é hipocondríaca. (Ana is hypochondriac.)
- O Carlos é diabético. (Carlos is diabetic.)