Gramática: Ser y Estar I / ¿Cómo?


  • Recognize different uses of ser and estar
  • Ask and answer questions with ¿Cómo?

Ser and estar both mean “to be”, and both can be followed by adjectives, but they’re not the same! We use different adjectives with each one, to convey different kinds of “being”.

Adjetivos usados con ser: Personality, general lifestyle, or qualities

You might remember that we used ser to talk about the inherent, essential or identifying qualities or characteristics of a person or thing:

  • alto/a (tall) – bajo/a (short)
  • amable/a (nice, amiable) – antipático/a (unfriendly)
  • honesto/deshonesto (honest/dishonest)
  • inteligente (intelligent)

Adjetivos usados con estar:  Conditions or states

And in a previous section we used estar to talk about the temporary, relative, or contingent condition of a person or thing:

  • contento (happy, content) – triste (sad)
  • sano (healthy) – enfermo (sick)
  • tranquilo (calm) – preocupado (worried)
  • cansado (tired) – enérgico (energetic)

When trying to decide between ser and estar, ask yourself: is this a characteristic of the person/thing (use ser), or is it a condition or state (use estar)? For this reason, emotions usually go with estar, while personality traits go with ser.

Sign and cones closing a sidewalk.

This sidewalk closure is a temporary state, not a permanent characteristic (hopefully). So the sign reads “La acera está cerrada.”

Adjetivos usados con serestar

With some adjectives, the meaning of the same word changes depending on whether you are trying to describe a characteristic or a condition. For instance: Él es aburrido (he is boring [quality or characteristic]) vs. Él está aburrido (he is bored [state or condition]). 

two people, one looking at their watch

Él es aburrido. (He is boring.) / Él está aburrido. (He is bored.)

Examples of change in meaning for specific adjectives:

  • Vivo
    El abuelo está vivo.
    (still alive)
    El abuelo es vivo. (clever, alert)
  • Listo
    El niño es listo.
    (He’s clever: personality)
    El niño está listo. (He is ready to do some activity.)
  • Verde
    La fruta está verde.
    (The fruit is green, immature, not ripe.)
    La fruta es verde. (permanent color of the fruit)
  • Joven
    La abuela está joven para su edad.
    (comparative, she is old in age, but looks young)
    Tienes diez años, eres muy joven para mirar esa película. (age as defining characteristic)
  • Rico
    La mujer es rica.
    La comida está rica. (delicious)
    ¡OJO! Using está rico/a to refer to people has a sexual connotation, and can be offensive. “He/she is hot looking.”

A few notes to consider:

  • Muerto
    El abuelo está muerto.
    (The grandfather is dead. Even though when a person is dead it is a permanent condition, “estar” is used because becoming “dead” only takes a second to change from “estar vivo”.)
  • Embarazada
    Mi compañera está embarazada.
    (My roommate is pregnant. This adjective is only used with women. In English sometimes it is common to hear that the couple or the man is “pregnant” also, implying that both are parenting; however, in Spanish a man is never “embarazado”.)


Now it’s time for a closer look at a question word that you have been using ever since the very start of this course. ¿Cómo? literally means “how?”, but is not always translated that way in English. Notice in the following examples how the difference between ser and estar drives a different translation of ¿cómo?.

  • “¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?”  “Estoy bien, gracias.” (Hi! How are you?”  “I’m fine, thanks.”)
  • “¿Cómo es tu novio?”  “Es cómico y muy inteligente.” (“What is your boyfriend like?”  “He’s funny and very intelligent.”)
  • “¿Cómo vamos a aprender todo esto?”  “Vamos a estudiar gradualmente, un poco cada día.” (“How are we going to learn all of this?”  “We are going to study gradually, a little bit every day.”)


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