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Episode 77: Ser vs. Estar, Part 1

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

As an English speaker, one of the trickiest things to learn is when to use the Spanish verbs estar and ser. They both mean "to be," but are both used in very distinct ways. So we'll do a three-part series to dive deep into how to use these verbs correctly! And we will begin our cultural tip mini-series on Bolivia! ¡Vámanos!


Just a quick note - if you would like more resources to help you with Ser vs. Estar and other Spanish grammar, check out the links in today's Show Notes! Full disclosure, some of them are Amazon affiliate links (For more information, see my Disclosure Policy), and I have clearly marked which ones. But they were invaluable in preparing for this episode series! So please enjoy! ^_^

Also, there may be a little bit of an odd sound from about the 1:45 to 7:44 min. marks. My A/C came on in the middle of recording and I messed up on editing it out. Sorry about that! I fixed it a little, but couldn't completely fix it. I have learned what NOT to do in the future. :D

The Verb Ser

We'll start our series with the verb ser. You've probably heard that ser refers to things that are permanent, but that's only kind of true. It's more accurate to think of ser as referring to things that can be permanent, but also things that are the norm (such as your eye color or nationality, but also characteristics that describe you, like kind or intelligent). Ser is also the heavy-lifter in the ser vs. estar relationship; there are more scenarios where you would want to use it. To help you remember these specific scenarios, I've created a helpful mnemonic:


There are three ways to use this mnemonic, all aligned with the word SER. It might be a bit complicated, so please bear with me. We have SER:




And you merely apply this to the mnemonic, ¿SE TIENE?


In the expression, ¿SE TIENE?, we first have the word SE. This is to remind you of the first scenario in which you would use the verb ser instead of estar: Passive Voice.

You are probably familiar with the general use of passive voice, se, correct? If not, no worries - we will have a separate episode on that specific grammatical construct later. For now, the basic principal of the passive voice is that an action is performed in a sentence, but there's not really a clear person or thing who performed the action.

For example, a normal, active sentence would be: John threw the ball. But if you were to take this sentence and change it to passive voice, it would be: The ball was thrown. Suddenly, we have no idea who threw the ball, only that this action happened. And that is, in essence, what passive voice does. Generally speaking, unless you are writing for a scientific journal, you should avoid this style of writing. There could be other areas where passive voice is required, but I wouldn't know. All I know is that, in college, my husband's science teachers demanded he use passive voice when writing labs, whereas my business, English, and history teachers would mark me down if I dared to use it.

Anyway. I digress.

In Spanish, they also use passive voice. A lot of times, you'll see it formed by putting the word se in front of a verb. If you've been anywhere that has a heavy hispanic influence, you might have seen signs with se vende on them, such as Se vende libros aquí or Se venden quesadillas, to advertise what types of things they sell at the store. Or perhaps you've seen signs with No Se Fuma, to make sure customers know smoking is not allowed.

But one of the other ways you can also use the passive voice in Spanish is with the verb ser. All you have to do is use ser + past participle, and voila! Passive Voice! Just make sure that the past participle matches the gender and number of the noun.

For example:

La manzana es comida. The apple is eaten.

Los coches fueron robados. The cars were stolen.

El ordenador será comprado por mi hermanito. The computer will be bought by my little brother. (Note how you can still, in a convoluted way, convey who will be doing the action by adding the prepositional phrase por + subject).

Las ventanas fueron rotas. The windows were broken.

Hence, the first word in our mnemonic phrase, ¿SE TIENE?, or SE, points you to the Passive Voice.


The next part in SER is Expresión. This points to the whole expression, ¿SE TIENE? Which is the verb tener, "to have," in the passive voice. This refers to the fact that ser is used, and not estar, when talking about possession. So, ¿SE TIENE? Is it had? Just link tener with possession to remember to use ser.

For example:

Eso es mio. That is mine.

El perrito es de mi padre. The puppy is my dad's.

La bufanda es de Juanita. The scarf is Juanita's.


And finally, we use the last letter in SER (R)to look at our helpful mnemonic, ¿SE TIENE?, for further revelation within the word TIENE. And what I mean by this is that TIENE is, in this case, an acronomyn for the last 4 events/scenarios where you would use ser.





Event Locations

1. With the first letter, T, we refer to Time. Ser is used whenever you are talking about the year, the seasons, the month, the week, the day, or even the hour.

For example:

¿Que año es? 2022. What year is it? 2022.

La próxima temporada es otoño. ¡No puedo esperar! The next season is Fall. I can't wait!

¿Es en enero? No, es en diciembre. Is it in January? No, it is in December.

¿Qué hora es? Es las 10:30 por la mañana. What time is it? It is 10:30 am.

2. The next two letters of our acronymn go together, IE, for Impersonal Expressions. Basically, in these expressions, you do not have a subject. Rather, you use the structure ser + adjective/noun to express something that is an opinion or value statement. This can be used in a lot of ways!

For starters, if you are merely referring to a general situation or idea, you would use ser + adjective/noun + infinitive verb.

  • Some examples with ser + adjective + infinitive verb:

Es importante comer el brócoli. It is important to eat broccoli. (Notice that we aren't saying it is important for someone specific to eat broccoli; just that, in general, it is a good thing to do.)

Es necesario combatir los incendios forestales. It is necessary to fight forest fires.

Es bueno probar cosas nuevas. It is good to try new things.

Es malo cultivar hierbas venenosas. It is bad to grow poisonous herbs.

  • Some examples with ser + noun + infinitive verb:

Es una pena perder la cartera. It is a shame to lose one's wallet.

¡Es una cosa maravillosa hacer nuevos amigos! It is a wonderful thing to make new friends!

Es un lío tratar de arreglar esta relación. It's a mess trying to fix this relationship.

If you are referring to a specific situation and/or person, then you use ser + adjective/noun + que + subjunctive.

  • Some examples with ser + adjective + que + subjunctive, taking the previous examples with the infinitive and now making them specific:

Es importante que coma su brócoli. It is important that he eats his broccoli. (Notice how now we have a very specific person who needs to eat his broccoli. And do you see how que changes comer into coma, the subjunctive?)

Es necesario que combatamos los incendios forestales. It is necessary that we fight forest fires.

Es bueno que pruebas cosas nuevas. It is good that you try new things.

Es malo que cultiven venenosas hierbas. It is bad that they are growing poisonous herbs.

  • Some examples with ser + noun + que + subjunctive, taking the previous examples with the infinitive and now making them specific:

Es una pena que hayas perdido la cartera. It is a shame that you have lost your wallet.

¡Es una cosa maravillosa que haga nuevos amigos! It is a wonderful thing that he makes new friends!

Es un lío que traten de arreglar esta relación. It's a mess that they are trying to fix this relationship.

  • *Now, there is an exception to this rule. If you are expressing facts via an impersonal expression (not opinion), then you use the indicative statement rather than the subjunctive after the word que.

Es obvio que come su brócoli. It is obvious that he eats his broccoli.

Es lógico que combatimos los incendios forestales. It is logical that we fight forest fires.

Es un hecho que has perdido la cartera. It is a fact that you have lost your wallet.

¡Es evidente que hizo nuevos amigos! It is evident that he made new friends!

3. Our next letter in TIENE is N, for Norms. This refers to a person's characteristics (or a thing's) that either cannot be changed or that are the norm for them. So they are either permanent or it is something you expect them to have or be.

Let's start first with some things that cannot be changed:

  • Ethnicity/Nationality

Ella es asiatica. Él es de Zimbabue. She is Asian. He is from Zimbabwe.

  • Family Relations (you cannot change your kin, whether you like it or not! ^_^)

Ella es mi madre. She is my mother.

  • What material something is made of.

Ese vestido es de terciopelo. That dress is velvet.

  • Math (which is true all the time)

1 más 1 es 2. 1 plus 1 is 2.

  • Quantities of Things (this is also a permanent type of thing)

Hay tres patos. There are three ducks.

  • The Purpose of Something (the reason that you do something or give something to someone)

¡Este episodio es para ayudarte en tu travesía lingüística! This episode is to help you on your language journey!

  • Hierarchy or Order

Esa es la segunda campana. That is the second bell.

Other things that would fall under Norms are things that perhaps could change, but are the norm for you. They may even be a central characteristic of what or who you are:

  • Hair color

Él es rubio. He is blonde.

  • Profession (Note that, in Spanish, they do not say "I am a professor." or "He is an astronaut." They leave out the articles.)

Soy ingeniero. I am an engineer.

  • Religion (Same with religion; you do not use the article in Spanish.).

Soy cristiana. I am a Christian.

  • Personal Qualities

Abigail es muy inteligente. Juan es muy amable. Abigail is very intelligent. Juan is very kind.

  • Artistic Style

Él es un surrealista. He is a surrealist.

  • Political Party

Ellos son republicanos. Él es un liberal. They are Republicans. He is a liberal.

  • Age (While this might change overtime, it is something very intrinsic about you in this moment. And for awhile; it's not like you will age very quickly.)

Él es un hombre viejo. He is an old man.

  • Cost

Esos zapatos cuestan $35. Those shoes are $35.

4. Our last letter from TIENE for our mnemonic is E, for Event Locations. While estar is used to express most locations, if you want to know where an event will be held, you use the verb ser.

For example:

¿Dónde es la fiesta de cumpleaños de John? Es en el apartamento de la 6ta avenida. Where is John's birthday party? It's in the apartment on 6th avenue.

¿Dónde es la conferencia de negocios? Es en el hotel. Where is the busines conference? It's in the hotel. (Or, you could phrase it as, "Where is the business conference being held? It is being held in the hotel, or at the hotel.)

And there you have it! All you need to remember for all of the different ways ser is used is to remember SER + ¿SE TIENE?. So you have:

  1. SE for the Passive Voice in ¿SE TIENE?.

  2. You have Expresión for the expression ¿SE TIENE? to help you remember that you use it for possessives. (Is it had? Is it a possessive?)

  3. And then Revelación.

    1. The revelation is in the acronym TIENE, for Time, Impersonal Expressions, Norms, and Event Locations. I hope that this episode was more helpful than confusing.

Ser is a very useful verb, but it definitely gets a lot of mileage and it can be complicated to remember when to properly use it! Remember, if you have any questions, you can always contact me at ^_^

Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.

¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!


Cultural Tip: Bolivia

Country Facts

Name: Estado Plurinacional de Bolivia, or the Plurinational State of Bolivia

Size: According to the CIA's World Factbook, Bolivia is not quite three times the size of the state of Montana.

Location: Located in South America, Bolivia is west and south of Brazil, east of Peru and Chile, and north of Paraguay and Argentina. It and Paraguay are the only two landlocked countries in South America.

Government Type: Presidential republic. The current president is President Luis Alberto Arce Catacora as of November 2020. He is both head of government and the chief of state. Interestingly, both the president and the vice president are elected together directly by the people, but have to win at least 50% of the vote (or 40% of the vote, as long as they have 10% more than the next highest candidate. If that doesn't happen, then the people vote again and the winner is chosen via majority vote). They do not have term limits, as of 2017, but serve for 5-year terms. The legislative branch is a bicameral Plurinational Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa Plurinacional) - boy is that a mouthful! It is made up of two chambers. The first is the Chamber of Senators (Camara de Senadores), which has 36 seats directly elected by what the CIA's World Factbook describes as "multi-seat constituencies by party-list proportional representation vote." Try to figure out what that means! If you do, please send me a note explaining it!). Next is the Chamber of Deputies (Camara de Diputados), which has 130 seats. 70 of those seats are elected the same way the senators are, but 53 are via single-seat constituencies with "closed party-list proportional representation vote", and the last 7 are directly elected in single-seat constituencies via majority vote. All legislators serve 5-year terms. When it comes to the judicial branch, Bolivia has a lot of courts! There is the Supreme Court (Tribunal Supremo de Justicia), which has 12 judges, and the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal, which has 7 primary magistrates and 7 alternates. They also have the Plurinational Electoral Organ, with 7 members and 6 alternates, and the National Agro-Environment Court, with 5 primary judges and 5 alternates. Lastly, there is the Council of the Judiciary, which has 3 primary judges and 3 alternates. If you are paying attention, that is 5 high courts (and really long names)! For all of the courts, minus the Plurinational Electoral Organ, the judges are pre-selected by the Assembly and then elected directly via popular vote. 6 of the Plurinational Electoral Organ judges are appointed by the Legislative Assembly, and 1 by the president. For all courts, the judges serve 6-year terms.

Capital City: Bolivia actually has two capital cities. La Paz is the administrative capital, whereas Sucre is the constitutional capital.

Religion: As of 2018, it is mainly Roman Catholic at 70%, with Evangelical Christian at 14.5%.

Official Languages: Bolivia is really cool in that Spanish is not the only official language. As of 2009, the Bolivian constitution made Spanish and all 36 indigenous languages official (even though some are extinct). As of about 2001, about 60.7% of Bolivians speak Spanish, 21.2% Quechua, and 14.6% Aymara.

Currency: Bolivianos (BOB)

Brief History

Bolivia has a very turbulent history. It fell under Spanish rule, like most of Latin America, and then gained independence in 1825. It had a series of very unstable governments, with democracy finally being restored in 1982. One of the more modern presidents, Evo Morales (a socialist), was elected president in 2005. He won reelection in 2009 and 2014, but was not allowed to run again in 2019. That is, until the Supreme Court ruled that it was a violation of human rights to have term limits in 2017. In the 2019 election, however, Morales had to flee the country due to military pressure, claims of election fraud, and violence. President Jeanine Anez Chavez setup an interim government, and President Luis Alberto Arce Catacora was elected in October 2020.



Intro and Closing Music by Master_Service from Fiverr

Cultural Tip Transition Music edited from song by JuliusH from Pixabay

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