Ser and Estar are two little words that cause a lot of people a lot of pain because they both mean “to be” but they’re used in different situations. Usually they’re pretty straightforward but there are some weird hinterland cases I often struggle with so I am going to use this page to list some of them. I’ll add to it as they crop up.
Backing up a bit for the benefit of any newbies who are reading this (srsly dudes, you’re in the wrong place)
Ser comes from “Esse” in Latin and it’s cognate with the english word “Essence”. You use it when you are talking about some essential qualities a thing or a person has that are permanent and unchanging
- He is tall
- You are intelligent
- I am the Walrus
- It is made of wood
Are all examples of phrases that tell you something about someone’s or something’s essential nature so they all take “ser” in Portuguese
Estar is from the latin “stare” and it’s cognate with “status” so you use it when you’re talking about a situation that a person or thing is in now.
- He is in the bathroom
- He is ill
- It is on fire
Are all examples of phrases that tell you something about what state something is in at a fixed point in time, so they all take “estar” in portuguese.
There’s a third word “ficar” which actually means “to remain” but it can also be use for geographical sentences
- Lisbon is in Portugal
- The shop is in Kingston
In each of these the portuguese would use Ficar because the geography is fixed and it ain’t moving.
You can also come across it in some other situations like “ficou feliz quando leu a carta”, which can be confusing since it looks like we’re using the “geographical is” to describe a very transitory emotion. Here, the person isn’t saying “he was happy” but “he became happy”.
Don’t blame me, I don’t make the rules.
So What Are the Weird Situations?
So far, so easy, but when you start to think about these things it starts to get a bit perplexing though. Here are some conundrums and the suggested solutions
“It’s a beautiful day”
Ser or Estar?
Well the weather changes, so that sounds like Estar. Ah, but today is today. The weather might change tomorrow but tomorrow is tomorrow. Today is beautiful. It was always destined to be beautiful. And when I look back on the selfies I took today I will remember how beautiful it was, from start to finish.
To cut a long story short, you’re basically safest using “estar” for anything weather-related. I have seen “é um dia muito bonito”, so the ser form isn’t completely crazy but estar seems to work in basically any situation, so I would suggest sticking to the idea that the weather is fleeting and slathering estar all over it.
The View Out the Window
Heraclitus said “You Can Never Step In the Same River Twice”. If you step into the Thames tomorrow, the water that was in it today will have flowed away and been replaced by new water. There’ll be new leaves, new ducks, new discarded coke cans. Every day, I thank the Lord that I don’t have the job of translating Heraclitus into Portuguese.
This past Tuesday, I was on the train and I wanted to describe the view. Is a view out the window a transitory phenomenon like Heraclitus would have said or a more permanent one like his pal Permenides might have said*? The hills and trees are as permanent as a thing can be, and the fact that the train is moving past doesn’t change them. Does that matter? I decided it was probably estar because the view from the window would sometimes be of the back of a Morrisons supermarket or a junkyard or a giant poster of Boris Johnson.
So are all views from all windows always estar? No matter where the window is, the weather will change and so the view will change from day to day? Well, I raised this in a discussion and my good friend Márcio helped me (as he always does) to get my head around all this, confirming and clarifying what I was trying to think through. If you live in a house on a hill, one of the selling points of that house might be its view across a lake or a meadow. In that case, it would be fair to say that the view from the house was a beautiful view always and ever, despite fluctuations. That’s it’s defining characteristic, even when the fog is temporarily obscuring it.
- A vista pela janela do comboio estava linda
- A vista pela janela do meu apertamento no 23° andar era linda
Sou profissional de informática. That’s what I’m trained for, and if I move from place to place, that’s what I’ll remain. Even if I get a job as a postman, temporarily, because I have found myself between contracts in December when the Christmas rush is on, I will still be a profissional de informática who happens to be delivering your graze box this morning.That seems fine for people who have chosen a career path, or who have had specialist training of some sort. But what about transitory jobs we do for a few weeks? What about jobs we do but feel no affinity for and don’t identify with; jobs, in other words, that just pay the rent?
Again, there’s no room for estar here. Estar is never (?) used to just make a simple link between two nouns; if it’s not paired with an adjective then “ser” is what you need., so if you wanted to say you were a postman you’d still say “Sou Carteiro”. Does this seem odd that you can be both a Profissional de Informática and at the same time um carteiro? Well, apparently not, although if you wanted to stress the temporary nature of the gig you could rephrase it by saying “I am working as a postman” instead of “I am a postman”, which, thinking about it, is probably what you’d do in English, too.
*= I happen to know Parmenides used Southeastern Rail and long hours of being completely stationary were a formative influence on his views on this matter.