Beginner Spanish students are often told that ser is for permanent things and estar is for temporary things, except for location, which is always estar, even if it’s a permanent location.
This rule, while attractive in its simplicity, is unreliable and not really useful. Students often trust and try to deploy it past the very few cases where it actually applies, and even then there are exceptions.
What is change? What is permanent? Everything must change in order for things to remain the same. Nobody bathes twice in the waters of the same river. After eternal iterations, everything will come back, even 90’s hairstyles and leggings.
The concepts of change and permanence have inspired writers and philosophers to produce interesting concepts and texts, but in the end, the question remains: what changes and what doesn’t?
Reader, we’d like to suggest a slightly different take on this most Hamletian dilemma of ser or estar.
Rather than going for a permanent against temporary approach, which has so many exceptions, we invite you to consider the possibility of change as they apply to some of these concepts we study in our beginner levels.
Back to the Future’s mad scientist, Doc Brown, for one, doesn’t exist; you can’t hop on his DeLorean to alter the fundamentals of your date and place of birth. We use ser and it’s impossible for it to change.
Soy de Nueva York. Soy de Cataluña.
On the other end, even if you do absolutely nothing for a day, after enough hours awake you will feel sleepy and you will need some rest. It’s called metabolism. Energy increases and decreases according to so many factors, so it changes easily and frequently.
Estoy muy cansado. No estoy cansada.
Let’s look at a few other cases and consider how likely they are to change, and, if there may be an intersection between ser and estar or if, maybe, a different tense can help us express ourselves better.
Descriptions of appearances and personalities in particular, but also descriptions in general
We agree that the verb ser is a good match for descriptive words such as alta, bajo, inteligente, delgado, fuerte, bonita, guapo, interesante, sincera, (brutalmente) honesta and whatever other adjectives people choose to use in describing themselves. This is all hunky-dory, but there is a but.
Yes, we all have a general physical appearance and a somewhat stable set of personality traits that can lead someone to say, for example, Nelson es calvo, bajo, fuerte y muy energético, or, Rolando es simpático, chistoso y no muy musculoso. All names have been changed to protect the not-so innocent.
However, a substantial alteration of their diets and habits could, for example, turn Rolando into a regular musclebound bro, and if he ate enough vegan nachos and drank enough beers someone could say, after meeting him for the first time, Nelson es gordo.
If a long-lost friend were to run into either of them after they have altered their physiques, they would notice this substantial change and would exclaim, Estás fuerte, to their former skinny-fat friend; or Estás gordo to their formerly buff friend. The person has observed a change in them that differs from their regular build, and therefore they will use estar.
Bottom line, physical appearance can change after substantial effort or neglect: Estás gordito or Estás fuerte; for the most part, it doesn’t: Nelson es fuerte. Rolando es delgado.
Same thing with personality traits. We may start life as alegre, optimista, imprudente e impaciente, all traits likely to be found in younger individuals. And even if we don’t always manage to change ourselves, life does it for us, for better or for worse.
We could express these changes using the present and the imperfect: Antes era más optimista pero ahora soy más cauteloso. Antes era más imprudente pero ahora soy muy discreto.
Personality and physical traits can change, but they take a lot of time and effort to change. When we describe people based on the traits we’ve always observed in them, we use ser. When we notice they have changed, we use estar.
It takes time to build true friendships, and it takes time for them to fade away too, a bit like a cliff that is chipped away at by fierce waves. Consider a few points in time: Somos amigos y nos vemos todo el tiempo. Somos amigos, pero no nos vemos mucho. Nunca nos vemos. ¿Seguimos siendo amigos? That last bit is a verbal periphrasis, roughly translated as Are we still being friends? but more accurately translated as Are we still friends?
And again, the imperfect can help, Éramos amigos pero las cosas cambiaron y hace mucho tiempo que no hablamos (We used to be friends but things changed and we haven’t talked in a long time).
Friendships are always expressed with the verb ser even when we have to admit that perhaps such a friendship is fading away. C’est la vie.
Profesiones, empleos, supervisores, jefes, directores, vecinos
It’s hard to find a truly satisfactory calling. It may be hard to make a living at it if this calling is a cross between etymology, history, and graphic design. It’s hard to find a job and to switch careers. It’s hard to get a promotion, but sometimes it’s also hard to get rid of an incompetent boss. Yes, all of these things can change, but as we’ve said, they don’t change easily. Pedro es mi jefe. Soy investigador de etimología comparada. Lucía es doctora. Gabriel es escritor.
Let’s mix it up a bit. Lucía es mi jefe. Ahora ella está trabajando en un proyecto en África. Yo estoy encargado del departamento. Yo soy el director encargado. The fact that I am in charge of the department will change, and therefore we use estoy encargado just as we’d say estoy ocupado, estoy enojado or even estoy cansado. The participle encargado is being used as an adjective that describes a temporary situation. But the title of director can be modified by the same adjective, encargado. In this case, ser will prevail because we are using a professional title, while encargado is simply modifying the title.
Take a deep breath. Have faith. Read the paragraph above slowly and have a glass or a cup of your favorite bevvy while you do so, if necessary. Work titles and professions always go with ser. Titles, employers and careers change, but it takes time and effort. If somebody is in charge, while their boss is away, María está encargada de la escuela mientras Pedro está de vacaciones. María no es la directora permanente. María es la directora encargada.
Likewise with neighbors: it’s hard to find a place to live, at least in New York, and so when we do find one, we tend to stay, although who knows for how long.
Even if we stay for one month only, or if our neighbor moves after two, as long as we live near each other, we’ll use ser: Kramer es el vecino de Jerry. Flanders es el vecino de Homer.
Your correspondent tries to adhere to a vegan diet, but he knows which one is his favorite cheese: el cheddar es mi queso favorito. He tries not to imbibe much, but he has a favorite wine: el Grunner Vertliner es mi vino favorito. He has a bookstore that he returns to every once in a while, even though it’s a bit unclear whether its indy darling mystique is a clever ruse or true bona fides. Who could argue with 8 miles of books? The Strand es mi librería favorita.
We develop our favorites over time, sustained by satisfactory experiences that provide us with comfort and reliability in a world of, well, uncertainty and angst. And yes, favorites may change; perhaps a nice, creamy, stinky cheese could become the new favorite, or a very dry Riesling could replace that beloved Grunner and become the new favorite wine, and McNally Jackson actually has a very interesting selection, so it could become a new favorite bookstore. Favorites can change, but it takes a while for them to do so.
Moods are emotional states, estados emocionales: ¿Cómo estás? ¡Estoy feliz! We talk about our moods with estar: estoy triste, estoy enojado, estoy frustrado. We also use estar to talk about our state at a given moment: estoy ocupado, estoy cansado, estoy sucio (dirty). But these words, feliz, triste, sucio, limpio (clean) can also be used with ser to convey a happy, sad, dirty or clean essence:
Manuel es feliz con lo que tiene. Manuel is happy with what he has.
Pedro solo se baña los domingos y nunca limpia su casa. Es encantador, pero es sucio. Pedro only showers on Sundays and he never cleans his house. He’s charming, but he’s dirty.
Juan es un hombre triste. Tiene mucho dinero pero no tiene gustos o aficiones.Juan is a sad man. He has a lot of money, but he has no hobbies or pleasures.
It’s never too late to tame the unruly Venn diagram of ser and estar, and your Spanish will improve substantially if you do. We encourage you to use these examples to replace the temporary vs. permanent rule. Once you learn them case by case you’ll be on your way.