How do you count words? Ashley Wagner discusses the question as part of our video on the number of words in the English language.
When translating the verb to be, the English speaker needs to be constantly aware of whether to use the verb ser or estar – please refer to the notes at those entries for a broad description of the difference between the two words.
Generally, it is worth bearing in mind the following points:
▪ Many words are used with either ser or estar and have different fixed meanings in each case:
estar aburrido = to be bored
ser aburrido = to be boring
estar bueno = to be tasty/nice
ser bueno = to be good
estar listo = to be ready
ser listo = to be clever/bright
estar seguro = to be sure
ser seguro = to be safe
▪ The use of ser or estar with some other words produces more subtle differences:
está loco = he is mad (i.e. insane)
es loco = he is crazy (i.e. does stupid, dangerous things)
▪ estar is often used in place of ser to indicate a changed or changing state:
es gordo = he’s fat
está gordo = he’s put on weight
▪ It can also indicate a temporary as opposed to a permanent state:
eres muy fuerte = you’re very strong
estás muy fuerte = you’re very strong (these days/today)
However, the English speaker should not rely too much on this notion – estar muerto = to be dead might be considered a fairly permanent state!
▪ Some words are used almost interchangeably with both ser and estar when in particular contexts:
fue/estuvo muy amable con nosotros = she was very nice or pleasant to us
la fiesta estuvo/fue muy animada = the party was very lively
Care should be taken, however, with regional differences. Latin America prefers ser casado for to be married while Spain favors estar casado. Latin America does not accept estar viuda, which is common in Spain.
Ser and Estar with the past participle
Note the completely different grammatical constructions created with ser and estar and the past participle.
▪ When used with estar, the participle is adjectival:
está bien construido = it’s well-built
está muerto = he is dead
▪When used with ser, the participle forms part of a verbal passive construction:
fue construido en 1985 = it was built in 1985
fue muerto en la batalla (period) = he was killed in the battle
In both cases, the participle agrees in gender and number with the subject of the verb:
estaban muy entretenidas = they were highly amused
fueron entretenidas = they were entertained (i.e. by someone)
There are times when it is unclear whether an English sentence involving be + past participle is expressing a passive construction, or an adjectival use of the past participle. For example, the sentence the land was divided in two could refer to the state of the land (the land was divided in two, with a wall marking the division), or to the action of dividing it (the land was divided in two during the war). There is no such ambiguity in Spanish, which makes the meaning clear by the use of ser or estar:
the land was divided in two = las tierras estaban divididas en dos (state)= las tierras fueron divididas en dos (action)
Note that a variety of other verbs are used in translations of to be, including existir, hacer, quedar, resultar, tener; for examples, see the entries for these verbs, as well as the entry for be
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