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I can understand why we would use estar for temporary states. But there are conditions that people have that are not temporary, such as being old (or for some people, being fat).

¡qué gordo está!
¡pobre abuelo! está viejo.
¡todo está tan caro!

These subjects aren't going to change: people won't get younger or thinner, and things aren't going to get cheaper.

Why do we use estar for these and not ser?

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1  
Have you heard about diets? –  Serabe Nov 17 '11 at 0:40
    
You don't know the people I know. –  Richard Nov 17 '11 at 15:03
    
I have a skinny friend who sits in the plaza with me and points to ladies, «¿Qué adivinas -- está gorda o embarazada?» and it's always estar. –  Brian Nov 22 '11 at 10:01

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Indeed you can also say the same sentences with the verb "ser" instead of "estar" with a difference in meaning:

  • Él es gordo: he is a fat person.
  • Él está gordo: He is fat right now (he can lose weight in a future or he's fatter than usual).

  • Él es viejo: he is old.

  • Él está viejo: He looks old.

  • El coche es caro: this model of car is expensive (in general).

  • El coche está caro: the car is expensive right now in comparison with another time.
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You can say

"Juan es gordo"

and

"Juan está gordo"

Both in english are "John is fat". But the first one points to a characteristic feature of John, a property that qualifies him. The second one is similar, but emphasizes that he is fat at this moment. The first one suggests a permanent or stable property (or at least does not imply anything temporal), the second one is definitely temporal.

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I believe that estar is used not for "temporary" but "non-permanent" situations.

Being fat may be "temporary" or not, but it is not necessarily "permanent."

Old is longer-lasting. But even then, one hasn't ALWAYS been old.

On the other hand, "soy un hombre," or "soy una mujer." Once a (fe)male, always one (barring a sex-change operation)>

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This is not true - ser is used for many non-permanent situations: Jorge es ciudadano de tal país, Jorge es gordo, Jorge era estudiante pero ahora es médico. Estar is also used for permanent situations: Juan ésta muerto. –  Paul Legato Jan 1 at 19:12

Both forms are allowed, and they have slightly different meanings.

¡qué gordo está!

You might use this when referring to somebody that didn't use to be so fat (be it a friend, a celebrity on TV, etc)

¡qué gordo es!

You might use this when referring to somebody that is very fat, and whom you didn't know in a different shape.

¡pobre abuelo! está viejo.

You might this to refer to a grandfather that is noticeably deteriorating physically or mentally.

¡pobre abuelo! es viejo.

This will probably only be said by a young kid, referring to the inevitable reality of old age.

Etc.

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