Ser vs. Estar – Two Ways of Being

At this point, you’re probably starting to get familiar with the verbs ser to be permanent state and estar to be temporary state. And yet, sometimes, they are still easy to mix up! Worry not: in this unit you’ll learn more about how to use one versus the other.

A Basic Distinction: Ser vs Estar

  • Ser is used to describe permanent states or conditions. It refers to an immutable or long-lasting attribute of the person or object we’re describing. Here’s the verb conjugated in the present tense (presente do indicativo):


ser
to be (permanent condition)

Indicativo

Ser – Indicativo – Presente

Tu és uma boa pessoa.
You’re a good person.

  • eu sou
  • I am
  • tu és
  • you are
  • ele / ela é
  • he / she is
  • você é
  • you formal are
  • nós somos
  • we are
  • eles / elas são
  • they masc. / they fem. are
  • vocês são
  • you pl. are

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  • Estar is used for temporary states or conditions:

estar
to be (temporary or accidental condition)

Indicativo

Estar – Indicativo – Presente

Nós estamos quase lá.
We are almost there.

  • eu estou
  • I am
  • tu estás
  • you are
  • ele / ela está
  • he / she is
  • você está
  • you formal are
  • nós estamos
  • we are
  • eles / elas estão
  • they masc. / they fem. are
  • vocês estão
  • you pl. are

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Using Estar and Ser in phrases

Despite the seemingly simple distinction, even advanced Portuguese speakers often have to think twice about which of the two verbs should be used, as it’s not always straightforward.
For example, the same adjective can convey a different meaning depending on whether it’s combined with ser or estar:
Tu és magra! You are thin! referring to long-term body type
Tu estás magra! You are thin! …compared to other days
The former, with ser, suggests that thinness is intrinsic to her; it’s how her body always looks.
The latter, with estar, could be graciously accepted as praise for successful diet or exercise efforts… or it could be taken as a backhanded compliment, implying that while she is thin now, that wasn’t necessarily true before.
Here are a couple more examples:

  • Permanent physical features – ser: Ela é muito alta. She is very tall.
  • Temporary physical states – estar: Nós estamos muito cansados. We are very tired.
  • Permanent (or at least long-term) personality traits – ser: Ele é muito tímido. He is very shy.
  • Temporary emotional traits – estar: Tu estás muito nervoso, relaxa! You are very nervous, relax!

Note that when describing professions, only ser is accepted. For example, Ela é médica. She is a doctor.
 
To describe an action that is happening now, only estar can be used (as an auxiliary verb). For example, Ele está a trabalhar. He is working.

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