The copula, a word—usually a verb—linking a subject with a predicate, is a basic component of most languages. In English, this role is performed by the verb “to be” and its various conjugated forms. However, there are two words for “to be” in Portuguese. This can be tricky for English learners of the language to get used to. Practice with a tutor to get accustomed to the different uses of these two verbs and to learn how to conjugate them.
In this post, we’ll take a look at the difference between the two words for “to be” in Portuguese, ser and estar, and go through the most common conjugated forms of each. Ser and Estar: The Difference
For an English speaker, the difference in meaning between ser and estar is not immediately obvious, because both translate as “to be.” The distinction lies in the type of state they are attributing to the object: In other words, to tell whether you should use ser or estar in a given situation, you need to look at the predicate. Ser is used to attribute permanent conditions or characteristics to the object, whereas estar is used for the attribution of temporary conditions or characteristics.
For example, if we are saying a person is tall, this is a permanent state, so we say ela é alta (she is tall), é being the third-person present tense conjugated form of ser (see below for a list of ser conjugations). If we are saying that a person is wearing a shirt, this is a temporary state, so we say ela está usando uma camisa (she is wearing a shirt), está being the third-person present tense conjugated form of estar.
In the specific case of being tall or short, sometimes context can lead to the use of estar in the place of ser. For example, we can say ele está baixo agora, mas ele vai crescer (he’s short right now, but he’ll grow). These are exceptional situations, however, and it’s usually clear from the context that a temporary state is being attributed.
Some states can be either temporary or permanent. Happiness is an example: a person can either be happy in the sense of being in a good mood or pleased with a specific event, or in the sense of being an intrinsically happy person. In this case, the choice of whether to use ser or estar is determined by the context. Eu estou feliz means “I am happy at the moment,” whereas eu sou feliz means “I am a happy person.”
Conjugating Ser and Estar
Whereas in English there are eight conjugated forms of “to be” (be, am, is, are, being, was, were, been), when it comes to “to be” in Portuguese there are two different verbs with dozens of conjugations to learn. These can look radically different from the infinitive form, particularly in the case of ser. You’ll need the help of a tutor to learn how to use them properly. In this post, we look only at the present tense, the past imperfect tense, and the future indicative tense, but there are several other commonly used tenses you will need to know.
A quick note on the Portuguese for “you”: the most common Portuguese second person singular pronouns are você and tu, and vocês is the most common second person plural pronoun. Você and vocês are not included on the table because they are a grammatically irregular, relatively recent evolution of the Portuguese language. When conjugating verbs for them, the third person singular and plural forms are used, that is, the same conjugated forms as those for ele/ela and eles/elas. For more information on this, see the post on pronouns or consult your tutor. Ser
Eu sou: I am
Tu és: You are
Ele/ela é: He/she/it is
Nós somos: We are
Vós sois: You are (plural/formal, antiquated)
Eles/elas são: They are
Eu era: I was
Tu eras: You were
Ele/ela era: He/she/it was
Nós éramos: We were
Vós éreis: You were (plural/formal, antiquated)
Eles/elas eram: They were
Eu serei: I will be
Tu serás: You will be
Ele/ela será: He/she/it will be
Nós seremos: We will be
Vós sereis: You will be (plural/formal, antiquated)
Eles serão: They will be
Eu estou: I am
Tu estás: You are
Ele/ela está: He/she/it is
Nós estamos: We are
Vós estais: You are (plural/formal, antiquated)
Eles/elas estão: They are
Eu estava: I was
Tu estavas: You were
Ele/ela estava: He/she/it was
Nós estávamos: We were
Vós estáveis: You were (plural/formal, antiquated)
Eles/elas estavam: They were
Eu estarei: I will be
Tu estarás: You will be
Ele/ela estará: He/she/it will be
Nós estaremos: We will be
Vós estareis: You will be (plural/formal, antiquated)
Eles estarão: They will be
Some Simple “To Be” Sentences
Here are a few simple examples of how to put this vocabulary into practice.
I am very short.
Eu sou muito baixo.
You were young.
Tu eras jovem.
He will be rich.
Ele será rico.
We are speaking now.
Nós estamos conversando agora.
They were sick.
Elas estavam doentes.
You will be in a meeting.
Você estará em uma reunião.
You will be excellent professionals.
Vocês serão profissionais excelentes.
Learn More About “To Be” in Portuguese
In this post, we’ve only covered the basics of this topic. There are many other conjugated forms of ser and estar to learn, and you’ll need a lot of practice to know which form of the Portuguese “to be” to use in a given situation. Work with a tutor to learn more about all the different ways of saying “to be” in Portuguese.