The Layperson’s Guide to Using Ser and Estar in Portuguese
You have a hard time using Ser and Estar in Portuguese.
We — the Latino — find it very easy. It’s very hard for us to see why English speakers think it’s such a problem.
You may’ve been learning Portuguese for some time. You may even speak it with some fluency and ease.
But when you want to describe one of the situations below, questions surface in your mind.
Your friend Maria is an elegant woman. She’s always well dressed. When you see her, you want to pay a compliment and say, “Maria, you are very elegant.”
Another friend Maria doesn’t care much about what she wears. Baggy pants, old shirts, worn-out shoes. But not today. Today she’s wearing a very beautiful dress. Because you want to praise her and maybe change her mind about her style, you say, “Maria, you are very elegant.”
(in life, I’m Maria #2)
So, what would you say in each situation? “Você é muito bonita” or “você está muito bonita”?
After reading this short guide, you’ll know which sentence to use — and much more.
Uses of Ser in Portuguese
When Talking about Origin
“Uncle George is from Pennsylvania and I am from Georgia.”
When using sentences like these, “SER” is the verb you need.
- Eu sou brasileiro. Sou de Fortaleza. I am Brazilian. I am from Fortaleza.
- De onde ela é? Ela é da Alemanha. Ela é alemã. Where is she from? She is from Germany. She is German.
When Talking about Occupation or Profession
Here, you just need to pay attention to the fact that we don’t use the indefinite article (um, uma) when saying what we do for a living.
- Eu sou professor. I am a teacher.
- Minha mãe era engenheira e meu pai era contador. My mother was an engineer and my father was an accountant.
When Talking about Permanent Characteristics — Emotional or Psychological, Too
If Josh has always been a charming person, we don’t expect him to become a jackass overnight.
Likewise, if Mary is a very tall woman today, there is a pretty big chance that tomorrow she’ll be tall, too.
- O José é alto e muito simpático. José is tall and very kind.
- Salvador é sempre quente no verão. Salvador is always hot during summer.
When Talking about Location of Things That Can’t Move
Streets, buildings, towns… Those things can’t (usually) move.
And when you want to talk about where they’re located, you can use the verb “ser”.
- Onde é a Avenida da Universidade? Where is the University Avenue?
- Essa escola é no Rio de Janeiro? Não, é em Salvador. Is this school in Rio de Janeiro? No, it is in Salvador.
Likewise, when talking about locations of things that can’t move in Portuguese, you can also use the highly versatile verb “ficar”.
- Onde fica a avenida da universidade? Essa escola fica no Rio de Janeiro? Where is the University Avenue? Is this school in Rio de Janeiro?
When Using Impersonal Sentences and Phrases
Here you might have some confusion. Impersonal means… When there is no person, right?
We talk about “impersonal phrases” we mean those sentences that use the following structure:
It + be + adjective + some optional complement.
It is good… It’s interesting that now you understand it… Sentences like that.
- Infelizmente, não é possível fazer isso agora. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to do it now.
- É muito provável que hoje a praia esteja fechada. It’s quite probable that today the beach is closed.
And notice that in the second example I used the subjunctive in the complement. You can see here why.
When Talking about Time — Chronologically
When you’re talking about a specific point in time — days, months, a particular hour of any day — you need to use “ser” in Portuguese.
- Hoje é segunda-feira. Today’s Monday.
- Que dia é hoje mesmo? quero dizer, que dia da semana é hoje? What days it today? I mean, what day of the week is it today?
- Que horas são? São duas da tarde. What time is it? It’s 2 PM.
When Talking about Possession or Belonging
And this encompasses both family relationships and things that you buy or acquire by any other means.
- De quem são esses óculos que estão em cima da mesa? Whose are these glasses on the table?
- Ei, esse pedaço de bolo é meu. Não coma, por favor. Hey, this piece of cake is mine. Please, don’t eat it.
And of course, when you have some religion or lean towards a specific political view, you belong to it.
- Muitos brasileiros são católicos. Many Brazilians are Catholics.
- Este político é de esquerda. Aquele político é socialista. This politician is a leftist. That politician is a socialist.
When Talking about Where Things Take Place
- Onde é a aula hoje? É na sala 32? Where is the class today? Is it in room 32?
- A peça que nós vamos assistir é no Teatro Módulo e não no Teatro Jorge Amado. The play that we are going to watch is at the Módulo theater not at the Jorge Amado theater.
Using Estar in Portuguese
If you’re into a more complex discussion of Ser and Estar, I recommend this site (in Portuguese).
When Talking about a Temporary Location
Remember we talked about things that don’t move, like theaters, buildings?
Here we are talking about things that move — including people.
- Hoje estou na escola, mas amanhã vou estar em casa. I am at the school, but tomorrow I’ll be at home.
- Onde estão as crianças? Eu estou aqui para vê-las. Where are the children? I’m here to see them.
- Onde estão minhas chaves? Where are my keys?
When Talking about a Temporary or Transitory Characteristic
When talking about permanent characteristics, I raised two points:
1) Psychological or emotional characteristics don’t usually change overnight.
2) Physical traits don’t change, either. At least, not that quickly.
When talking about temporary characteristics — someone is very elegant today — use the verb “estar”.
Also, when talking about states that result from a transition — dying, for example — you also use “estar”.
- Meu marido está morto. My husband is dead.
- Este bolo está muito saboroso. O que você colocou nele? This cake is very tasty. What did you put in it?
And here are some examples of temporary states.
- O Paulo está muito bem vestido hoje. Normalmente, ele não é assim. Paulo is very well dressed say. He isn’t like that usually.
- Estou um pouco cansado, porque trabalhei bastante hoje. I’m a bit tired, because I worked a lot today.
In the second example, being tired is the result of working — a state achieved through an action.
- Hoje está quente. Today’s hot.
When Talking about Actions in Progress
You’d do well if you paid attention to this one.
We Brazilians would think it’s very easy, but experience has shown me that most students fail to grasp this properly.
- O que você está fazendo com esse computador? What are you doing with this computer?
- Eu estou apresentando o meu novo negócio aos possíveis investidores. I am introducing my new business to the potential investors.
Things Get “Blurry” When Using Ser and Estar in Portuguese
You see, language is as malleable as you want.
And Portuguese isn’t any different.
So, some of the rules I presented above might give you the false impression that they are carved in stone and can never be changed or bent.
The fact is, they can.
Let’s take a look at the examples below and discuss a bit why they work.
- Você é muito inteligente. Fico orgulhoso de você. You are very intelligent. I’m proud of you.
Being intelligent is something that you are or you aren’t. And we don’t expect a not so bright person to become Einstein after one week.
Using “ser” was natural and mandatory.
- Você está muito inteligente hoje. O que você andou lendo? You’re very intelligent today. What have you been reading?
This isn’t a very nice sentence — you’re implying this person isn’t intelligent. That’s why we use “estar”.
Following the same logic, you could say:
- Sou professor.
- Estou professor.
Both sentences mean “I’m a teacher” but they reveal how the speaker perceives their profession.
The first example is neutral. This person thinks of themselves as a teacher.
The second example takes sides. This person is a teacher for now, but maybe they don’t like their job very much and intend to change it.
As you see, the rules don’t need to be very complicated. You’ll see some guys around saying that you have sixteen rules for this and fourteen rules for that.
It’s just that they tend to separate the things that I have grouped here.
This, my friend, is a simple way to learn how to use ser and estar in Portuguese.