A question that is frequently asked of me is about the verbs ser and estar. Many students do not realize the use and the difference between the verbs ser and estar because it is most often translated as the verb to be in English... there is one word in English for two in Portuguese; no wonder English speaking learners get confused!

But first, just a quick reminder for the conjugation of the verbs ser and estar in the present indicative tense:

Eu sou | estou

Tu és | estás

Ele/ela é | está

Nós somos | estamos

Vos sois | estais

Eles/elas são | estão

The main idea is that ser is for intrinsic, somewhat permanent or long-term state and physical characteristics:

  • O meu nome é Ana. My name is (permanently/always) Ana.
  • O sol é amarelo. The sun is (permanently/always) yellow.

It gives a sense of permanency or habitual nature when used with an adjective:

  • Eu sou alta. I am (permanently/always) tall.

We use the verb ser to attach a name to a profession or lifestyle:

  • Eu sou bióloga. I am a biologist.
  • Eu sou vegetariana. I am a vegetarian.

The verb ser also expresses the hour, day, date, or time.

  • São oito e vinte minutos. It's eight twenty.
  • É meia-noite. It's midnight.
  • Hoje é dia 7 de janeiro. Today is January 7.
  • Hoje é sábado. Today is Saturday.

The verb ser is used to express the location of homes or places:

  • A livraria é ao lado da loja das fotocópias. The bookstore is next to the photocopy center.
  • A casa-de-banho é ao fundo do corredor. The en-suite is down the hall.

Contrarily, estar is used for temporary, passing things or changing a state of being.

  • Eu hoje estou inteligente. Today I look intelligent (at this time).
  • A cerveja está gelada. The beer is (temporarily) cold.

Because they are temporary, some adjectives are only used with the verb estar:

  • Eles estão cansados. They are (temporarily) tired.
  • Eles estão contentes. They're happy.

Estar expresses the temporary location of people and/or objects.

  • O carro está perto do cinema. The car is near the cinema.
  • O Pedro está em casa da avó. Pedro is in grandma's house.
  • O gato está debaixo da mesa. The cat is under the table.

We use it to talk about or express the weather.

  • Hoje estão 5 graus. Today is five degrees.
  • Está frio! It is cold!

Here are some more examples that may help to understand the difference between ser and estar:

  • Eu sou Portuguesa. I am (permanently/always) Portuguese.
  • Ele é casado. He is (somewhat permanently) married.
  • A Susana está no ginásio. Susan is (temporarily) at the gym.
  • Os bolos desta pastelaria geralmente são óptimos, mas hoje não estão muito bons. The cakes at this pastry shop are usually great, but today they are not very good.

Notice that there are some cases where you could use both ser or estar but the meaning changes when we use one or the other case.

  • Ela é bonita, ela está bonita.
  • She is (permanently/always) beautiful, she is (temporarily) beautiful.

In the first case, we mean that the girl is naturally pretty (lucky girl). In the second case, it means that she is prettier than usual (maybe she is wearing nice clothes, got a new haircut, otherwise accessorized herself, or put on makeup). We use the second case when we want to call attention to the fact that she is prettier due to some temporary condition.

  • Ele está doente. He is (temporarily disease) sick
  • Ele é doente. He is (permanently, chronic) sick.

This is another example in which for both cases they are translated to “he is sick.” However, the first sentence says that he isn't usually sick, but is at the moment. The second case means that he is sick now, was in the past, and will be in the future. For example, a hereditary or chronic illness.

  • Eles são gordos. They are (permanently, if they born and still) fat.
  • Eles estão gordos. They are (temporarily, if they usually are thin) fat.

For the past and future tense, use the same rules:

  • Eu estive doente. I was sick.
  • Os bolos não eram bons. The cakes were not good.

The difference between the two is sometimes jokingly used by Portuguese and Brazilians:

Ela não está bonita, ela é bonita.

She is not (temporarily) beautiful, she is (permanently/always) beautiful.

Image Sources

Hero image by Eric on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)