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Using 'Ser'

Introducing a Verb Usually Meaning "To Be"

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Money from Mexico and Central America

Los billetes son de papel. (The bills are made of paper.)

Photo by Fernando Reyes Palencia; Creative Commons license.

Although it is an extremely common verb, ser can be confusing for many Spanish students because it is usually translated as "to be," same as the verb estar. Although they can often be translated the same way, ser and estar are distinct verbs with distinct meanings and are seldom synonymous.

It is probably most helpful to learn the two verbs separately, seeing how they function. A separate lesson looks at estar; this lesson focuses on ser.

Here are the main uses of ser along with examples and translations:

To indicate existence: This usage of ser should not be confused with hay, which is used to mean "there is."

  • Ser o no ser, esa es la pregunta. To be or not to be, that is the question.
  • Pienso, luego soy. I think, therefore I am.

With adjectives to indicate inherent, innate or essential characteristics: This typically means to describe the essential nature of something, not how something might be at a particular moment.

  • La casa es grande. The house is big.
  • Soy feliz. I am happy by nature.
  • Las hormigas son negras. Ants are black.
  • La nieve es fría. Snow is cold.

To indicate origin, nature or identity: Examples include people's occupations, what something is made from, the place where someone lives or is from and a person's religious or ethnic identity. Note that while such qualities can change over time, they generally can be considered part of that person's nature at the time of the statement.

  • Soy de Argentina. I am from Argentina.
  • No soy marinero, soy capitán. I am not a mariner, I am a captain.
  • Es Pablo. He is Paul.
  • Los billetes son de papel. The bills are made of paper.
  • El papa es católico. The pope is Catholic.
  • Su madre es joven. Her mother is young.
  • Mi amiga es muy inteligente. My friend is very smart.

To indicate possession or ownership, either literal or figurative:

  • El coche es mío. The car is mine.
  • Es mi casa. It is my house.
  • El siglo XXI es de China. The 21st century belongs to China.

With past participles to form passive voice: Use of past participles to form the passive voice is much less common in Spanish than it is in English.

  • La canción fue oída. The song was heard.
  • Son usados para comer. They are used for eating.
  • El gobernador fue arrestado en su propia casa. The governor was arrested in his own home.
To tell time:
  • Es la una. It is 1:00.
  • Son las dos. It is 2:00.
  • Era la tarde de un domingo típico. It was a typical Sunday afternoon.

To indicate where an event takes place: This usage is explained further in this lesson.

  • El concierto es en la playa. The concert is on the beach.
  • La fiesta será en mi casa. The party will be at my house.

In impersonal statements: Impersonal statements in English typically begin with "it" referring to a concept rather than a concrete thing. In Spanish, the subject isn't explicitly stated, so the sentence can begin with a form of ser.

  • Es importante. It is important.
  • Es mi elección. It's my choice.
  • Fue difícil pero necesario. It was difficult but necessary.
  • Es sorprendente que no puedas hacerlo. It is surprising that you can't do it.

As you may have noticed, ser is highly irregular. Following is its conjugation for the tenses most likely to be encountered by beginning students. Irregular forms are in boldface.

Present indicative:

  • yo soy, I am
  • eres, you are
  • usted/él/ella es, you are, he/she/it is
  • nosotros/nosotras somos, we are
  • vosotros/vosotras sois, you are
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas son, you/they are

Preterite (past) indicative:

  • yo fui, I was
  • fuiste, you were
  • usted/él/ella fue, you were, he/she/it was
  • nosotros/nosotras fuimos, we were
  • vosotros/vosotras fuistes, you were
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas fueron, you/they were

Imperfect (past) indicative:

  • yo era, I was
  • eras, you were
  • usted/él/ella era, you were, he/she/it was
  • nosotros/nosotras éramos, we were
  • vosotros/vosotras erais, you were
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas eran, you/they were

Future indicative:

  • yo seré, I will be
  • tú serás, you will be
  • usted/él/ella será;, you/he/she/it will be
  • nosotros/nosotras seremos, we will be
  • vosotros/vosotras seréis, you will be
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas serán, you/they will be

Ir form of the future indicative:

  • yo voy a ser, I will be
  • vas a ser, you will be
  • usted/él/ella va a ser, you/he/she/it will be
  • nosotros/nosotras vamos a ser, we will be
  • vosotros/vosotras vais a ser, you will be
  • ustedes/ellos/ellas van a ser, you/they will be

Note that in the preterite, the conjugation for ser is the same as the conjugation for ir (to go). Usually the context makes clear which verb is being used.

Other conjugated forms of ser can be found in this list. An explanation of the differences between the two past tenses of ser can be found in this lesson.

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