Wednesday, September 8th, 2010 at
Have you ever gotten flummoxed by the difference in Spanish between ser and estar, the two verbs that mean “to be” –depending on the circumstances?
I sure have, and I was a little reassured one day when I was chatting with a very well-educated Mexican friend of mine. I used the wrong one of these two verbs. Conchita laughed and said, “Getting ser and estar right is one of the hardest things for foreigners. I even have an Italian friend who speaks near-perfect Spanish — except for those two verbs!”
Well, I do have a secret weapon to help me : Spanish Verbs: Ser and Estar : Key to Mastering the Language is a very useful little book.. It explains why the way these verbs are often taught is too general and not precisely accurate, and it gives you some easy-to-remember guidelines.
For example, the authors say, “The fundamental difference between ser and estar is the difference between WHATNESS and HOWNESS.”
I must say that no light bulbs went on in my brain when I read that the first time, but they go on to explain it quite well.
I was quite amused at some of their examples. These took me into subtle realms where I fear I have been messing up for years.
Here’s one example from the book:
Ser or Estar – and the Art of the Back-handed Compliment
As an example of the effective use of ser and estar, let us take the adjective inteligente (intelligent). Students are often taught that this adjective is one in that long list of exceptions which should only take ser, as for instance:
Ricardo es inteligente.
In fact, the word inteligente can also be used very effectively with estar. But when so used, the result can easily be an openly sarcastic remark or a nicely disguised insult. For by the very use of estar in this phrase we are explicitly limiting Ricardo’s intelligence to a particular accidental instance…
With this example, I will leave you. I won’t tell you about the example on page 59 that had me wondering how often I might have announced that I was a fallen woman. Without meaning to! (I’m not.)