Translating the English verb “to be” into Spanish presents you with 3 options: ser, estar, or not to use ser or estar.
While the choice between ser and estar can cause enough headaches, this third choice provides a number of situations in Spanish where you need to pick another verb for the translation of “I am…”, “you are…”, “she is…” etc.
In this post, you’ll learn all about when not to use ser or estar in Spanish, and which verbs you’ll need to choose instead.
When not to use ser or estar: Temperature
When you are talking about temperature in Spanish, there are 3 scenarios to consider:
- The temperature of things
- The temperature of people
- Temperature in the context of weather
Out of these 3 scenarios, you can only use ser or estar with the temperature of things.
English: The water is cold.
Español: El agua está fría.
English: The oven is not hot yet.
Español: El horno aún no está caliente.
English: The winters are cold here.
Español: Los inviernos son fríos aquí.
English: The food in Spain is not hot / spicy.
Español: La comida de España no es picante.
English: Is it too spicy for you?
Español: ¿Está demasiado picante para ti?
In these last two examples, I wanted to give you a few options that weren’t talking about actual temperature but the heat in the flavour of the food. Note that when you talk about the ‘taste’ of food you use estar, but when you talk about the general ‘quality’ or ‘essence’ of food you use ser.
If you want to talk about the temperature of people, instead of using ser or estar, you must use the Spanish verb tener.
English: Are you cold?
Español: ¿Tienes frío?
English: I’m hot and I need to rest for a little bit.
Español: Tengo calor y necesito descansar un poco.
If you are talking about the temperature in the context of the weather, then you need to use the Spanish verb hacer.
Here are some examples:
English: It’s hot today.
Español: Hace calor hoy.
English: It’s cold here in autumn (fall) as well.
Español: Aquí también hace frío en otoño.
When not to use ser or estar: Age
When we discuss someone’s age in English, we use the verb ‘to be’.
In Spanish, to talk about your age, you’ll need the Spanish verb tener.
English: I’m 25 years old.
Español: Tengo 25 años.
English: How old are you?
Español: ¿Cuántos años tienes?
In addition, if you are talking about how old you will be turning next month, later this year, on your birthday etc., you’ll need the Spanish verb cumplir, which means ‘to turn’ in the context of age.
Here are some examples:
English: I turn 27 tomorrow.
Español: Mañana cumplo 27 años.
English: I will be turning 40 years old next year.
Español: Cumpliré 40 años el año que viene.
When not to use ser or estar: Emotions and feelings
Talking about emotions and feelings in Spanish can be quite challenging because firstly, there are a lot of false friends.
Secondly, there are several situations where we use “I am…” with an English adjective: happy, sad, afraid, embarrassed etc., and in Spanish some of these phrases use estoy but some use tener.
Here are some examples with tener:
English: I’m afraid.
Español: Tengo miedo.
English: He is embarrassed.
Español: Tiene vergüenza.
English: I’m looking forward to seeing her.
Español: Tengo ganas de verla.
Moreover, there are several ways of talking about emotions in English where the most natural translation could be a verb like gustar.
English: I’m interested.
Español: Me interesa.
English: I’m worried about that.
Español: Eso me preocupa.
English: She is annoyed.
Español: Le molesta.
In addition, you also need to be careful with physical feelings like ‘being’ hungry or thirsty.
English: We are hungry.
Español: Tenemos hambre.
English: Are you thirsty?
Español: ¿Tienes sed?
English: I’m sleepy.
Español: Tengo sueño.
Lastly, there are a few situations in Spanish where you need to replace an “I am…” phrase with a completely new Spanish verb. A useful example of this is the Spanish verb alegrarse, which you can use to say you are ‘glad’ or ‘pleased’. For example:
English: I’m pleased / glad.
Español: Me alegro.
English: We are pleased to see you.
Español: Nos alegramos de verte.
When not to use ser or estar: Success and luck
I wanted to put the examples in this section in the previous section but I couldn’t quite classify these examples as emotions or feelings.
While ‘luck’ and ‘success’ can be related to someone’s feelings, they can also be measures of someone’s performance at work (or possibly at the casino).
And, of course, in English, we say that someone ‘is’ successful or lucky, in Spanish you’ll again need the verb tener.
Here are some examples:
English: She is very successful.
Español: Tiene mucho éxito.
English: We are lucky to have been born here.
Español: Tenemos suerte de haber nacido aquí.
When not to use ser or estar: Late / early / on time
In Spanish, when you want to say “I’m early” or “I’m late” you should also avoid ser and estar.
Instead, it is much better to use the Spanish verb llegar (to arrive) to talk about people ‘being’ early, late or on time.
Here are some examples:
English: I don’t like to be early.
Español: No me gusta llegar temprano.
English: She is always on time.
Español: Ella siempre llega a tiempo.
English: We need to hurry, we are already late.
Español: Tenemos que darnos prisa, ya llegamos tarde.
While you shouldn’t talk about people ‘being’ early or late, you can say that it ‘is’ early or late in the day with ser. For example:
English: It’s late so I’m going home.
Español: Es tarde así que me voy a casa.
When not to use estar: Progressive tenses
A common use of estar is in the Spanish progressive tenses.
I recently wrote an article on the Spanish present progressive, which includes a detailed explanation of where you shouldn’t use the progressive tenses in Spanish.
I’m going to cover not using the progressive tense in short here because it’s important for the topic of when not to use ser and estar.
If we start with English, the progressive tense is where we combine a conjugation of ‘to be’ with a present participle: dancing, speaking, writing etc., e.g.
The translations of these to Spanish are generally straightforward, you can simply combine the Spanish verb estar with the Spanish present participles.
The above examples are:
English: I’m working.
Español: Estoy trabajando.
English: I’m reading.
Español: Estoy leyendo.
But, the problem is you can’t always do this.
There are a few verbs that you need to be extra careful with when you are translating them to Spanish. Two that I’ll mention here are ‘going’ and ‘coming’ in English.
In Spanish, the verbs ir (to go) and venir (to come) are on the ‘gerund banned list‘. This means that you shouldn’t use these Spanish verbs in the progressive tenses with these verbs.
Instead, you should only use these verbs in the normal present tense.
English: I’m going to the gym.
Español: Voy al gimnasio.
English: I’m coming to your house this afternoon.
Español: Vengo a tu casa esta tarde.
If you would like to read more about the Spanish progressive tense including a list of other verbs on the banned list, you can check out the article on the Spanish present progressive tense.
When not to use ser or estar: Right and wrong
In Spanish, it’s not easy to say “I’m right” or “I’m wrong”.
Sometimes you can use estar, but you have to be aware of an important change that happens when talking in the present tense versus the past. And, you also have to take note of where you are in the Spanish speaking world.
I’ve written a detailed post on being right or wrong in Spanish. But, I’ll give a brief summary of a few important examples here.
If you want to say “I’m right” or to tell someone “they are right”, you will need the Spanish verb tener:
English: You’re right.
Español: Tienes razón.
In contrast, if you want to say “I’m wrong” in Spanish, then you can use estar:
English: I think I’m wrong.
Español: Creo que estoy equivocado.
But, if you want to say “I was wrong” in the past, then you will need to use the verb equivocarse:
English: I was wrong about him.
Español: Me equivoqué con él.
Again, this topic has many more nuances, if you want to read more you can check out the article on being wrong, mistaken and confused in Spanish.
When it comes to learning all of the uses of ser and estar, the best approach is to take one use at a time.
You can pick one use and then find an opportunity to get feedback on how well you are using the idea in Spanish either through a language exchange partner, teacher, or Spanish class.
Similarly, with all of the situations in this article on when not to use ser or estar, you simply need to take one scenario at a time and test it out when you get an opportunity to use your Spanish.
Can you think of any other scenarios when you shouldn’t use ser or estar?