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Are They Equal? ‘Son’ vs. ‘Están’ in Spanish Conversations

Are They Equal? ‘Son’ vs. ‘Están’ in Spanish Conversations

As a native English speaker, it seems Spanish is generally acknowledged as among the easiest languages to learn. This is mainly due to the fact that Spanish and English share many grammatical and vocabulary similarities.

Trying to learn the situational usage of the wide array of vocabulary this ancient language holds under its belt. It’s a bit daunting at times. Especially synonyms such as the Spanish words “Son” and “Están” which both mean “they are”.

To save you some time, yes, there are some differences between the words “Son” and “Están”, and these differences are big enough to make the sentence you interchanged them with the sound “incorrect”.

Join me as I break down their situational usage and meanings.

How Do I Know When To Use “Es Son”?

Before we go on, allow me to introduce you to the possible variations of “Eer’ and “Estar” to get you comfortable enough to go through this article without getting a headache.

PronounSerEstarTo be
(yo) soy soy 
I am 
(él/ella/usted) es 
he/she/it is, you are
(nosotros/nosotras)somos estamos we are 
(vosotros/vosotras) sois estáis you are 
(elllos/ellas/ustedes) son están they/you are 
Take note of the differences.

How Do You Use Son in Spanish?

Son can be a noun or a verbal form. Son, as a verbal form of inflection, is the third person plural of the present tense of Indicative of the verb ‘ser’ and directly translates to “you are” or “they are“.

Take a look at some examples:

  • Are you English? = ¿Son ustedes inglesas?
  • No, we are not English. = No, no somos inglesas.
  • Where are you from? = ¿De dónde son ustedes?
  • We are from USA. = Nosotras somos de USA.
  • Who are they? = ¿Quiénes son ellos?
  • They are our teachers. = Son nuestros profesores.

Son can also be used as a noun which translates to sound, news, rumor, word, way, manner,

An example would be:

  • Without rhyme; without reason = Sin ton ni son.
  • To the sound of the guitar = Al son de la Guitarra.

Or even,

  • The news is going around that Donald Trump will be President of the USA. = Corre el son de que Donald Trump será presidente de USA.

How Do You Use Están?

Spanish Words
A few Spanish words

Similar to “son”, Están also refers to the verb “to be”. However, it has a contrastingly different situational usage. It can be used to talk about where something or someone is. For example;

  • Estoy en Casa= I’m home.
  • Dónde está Camila? =Where’s Camila?
  • Está encima de garaje.= It’s on the garage.

It can also be used with an adjective when there has been an unexpected change in the condition of someone or something. For example:

  • El café está frío. = The coffee’s cold.
  • Qué guapa estás con este vestido! = How pretty you look in that dress!
  • Hoy estoy de mal humor. = I’m in a bad mood today.

However, estár is mainly used to talk about temporary states or qualities.

  • ¡Estás muy Delgada! = You’re looking very slim!
  • Hoy estoy cansado. = I’m tired today
  • .Estamos aburridas. = We are bored
  • Está claro que no entiendes. = It’s obvious that you don’t understand.

What are the Differences Between “Son” and “Están”?

There’s a difference relating to time, but that’s not the only main difference. They both directly translate to “to be” or “are”. Well, the problem is that in Spanish, we have two verbs to Be:

Ser (to Be): Like in being something or someone.
Estar (to Be): Like in being somewhere, when or what.

So even though they might translate to the same thing, they have slightly different usage.

Here are some exaggerated examples to help you understand more clearly.

  1. Son Malas (ser) = They are evil.
  2. Están Malas (estár) = They are currently bad.
  1. Es Barato (es) = It is inexpensive.
  2. Está barato (estar) = It is on sale.
  1. Es retrasado (es) = He is retarded.
  2. Está retrasado (estar) = He is delayed/late.

Or even,

  • somos hombres = we are men
  • son españoles = they are Spanish
  • soy médico -= I’m a doctor
  • El reloj está roto – the clock is broken
  • Esta chica está Guapa – this girl looks pretty (this may be just today or it may be that she always looks pretty in your opinion)
  • Estoy Casado – I’m married (Let’s hope it’s not a temporary state!)

Moreover, some idioms give completely different meanings depending on whether or not you use them with “Son” or “Están”, however, these are relatively rare and are somewhat exceptions. For example:

  • Somos listos – we are smart.
  • Estamos listos – we are ready.

State of Being and Action, Feeling, Placement

Son is more of a state of being, like am or are. Sample sentence, “Ellos son Hermanos”, which means, ” They are brothers”. While, Estan is a verb that describes what is being done, feels, or can be used for placement.

First, for Action, “Ellas Están Estudiando”, which means “They’re studying.”
Second for Feeling, “Estan Cansados?” which means ” Are you guys tired?”
Last, for placement, “Tus Telépono están en la sala”, which means “Your cellphone is in the living room.”

Here is a video to help you understand more clearly.

This is informative!

Which is Temporary and Which is Permanent?

Besides vocabulary differences, they also have some contrasting differences related to time. “Son” (Verb ser) is used to describe deep-rooted characteristics or relatively stable ones. So, it’s mainly used to describe things that are more “permanent”.

For example:

  1. Yo soy Rubio = I’m blond.
  2. Yo soy punk = I‘m punk.
  3. Soy mujer = I am a woman
  4. son ingléses = they are English

Whereas, “están” (verb estár) is used for more temporal things or is used sometimes when something is currently occurring, a temporal condition or state. Therefore, it is used to describe something that can change in the future.

For example:

  1. Estoy dolorido= I’m in pain
  2. Estoy enfermo =I’m sick.
  3. Estoy cansada = ( I am tired),
  4. Están enfadados = ( they are angry)

Therefore, for a temporary condition like being sick, you can’t just say “Soy Enfermo”, which is not only wrong but sounds very weird. On the other hand, you might say something like “Soy un Enfermo”, which generally means that your sickness is a stable condition or might persist for a long duration.

However, there are some exceptions, such as:

  • “España está en Europa” which means “Spain is in Europe”. Notice how Están is used even though it’s mainly used for temporary stuff.

That said, as we know, Spain being in Europe is a permanent fact unless someone planning on moving the entire country to the Pacific.

Exercise Your Vocabulary

Have a go at this exercise. Try and guess whether “son” or “Están” fit into this sentence

—Are they nice, Ema and her sister?
—No, they aren’t nice. They are being nice today.

You guessed it! The grammatically correct verb that would fit into the above sentence is “Están”.

Additionally, they can also imply whether you hope it’ll be permanent or not. For example, a positive thing which may be temporary or permanent is more likely to get ser.

A negative thing in the same situation is more likely to get estár. Even though they don’t know if the situation is temporary or permanent, they’ll use the term which suits their desires.

Should You Be Worried?

Absolutely not! In fact, the use of ser and estár is one of the trickiest and most complicated points of Spanish usage to come to grips with.

Spanish people distinguish them spontaneously. You may get it incorrectly from time to time, but through familiarization, you’ll get a “feel” for which one to use.

Spanish people often ask how on earth we manage in English and all other languages with only one verb, “to be”. They look at me in disbelief when I tell them that we have trouble with ser and estár.

So, don’t worry about mixing these words up, although they aren’t interchangeable. The way you use them can completely alter a sentence. I’m sure the natives you’re trying to impress with your lingual skills would appreciate the effort to learn such a confusing language.

Here’s a fun fact: both Catalan and Portuguese also have the verbs ser and estár- and just to make life interesting, their use is slightly different in all three languages!.

The Bottom line

Here is the main focus of this article:

  • “Son” and “Están” both mean “they are” in English.
  • They have distinct situational usages, especially regarding the passage of time.
  • “Son” is used for more permanent or stable characteristics.
  • “Están” is used for temporary conditions or states.
  • They are not interchangeable, and using the wrong one can alter the meaning of a sentence.
  • The choice between them depends on the context and the nature of the described characteristics.
  • While confusing for learners, native speakers instinctively differentiate between “ser” and “estar.”
  • Fluency in using “Son” and “Están” correctly develops with practice and familiarity with the language.

I hope this article helps you differentiate between “Son” and “Están” and apply it in sentences correctly.

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