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I know it is rather rude to think of it this way and I don't want to offend anyone religiously, but being dead is usually thought of as a very permanent condition in the United States. So why does Spanish use the word 'estar' instead of 'ser' to indicate that condition? Is there some background to this in terms of religion or politeness? If I say 'Mi padre es muerto', would that have a drastically different meaning than if I had used estar, or is the first one just plain incorrect and should never be used at all?

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It's a nice question, indeed! –  Gonzalo Medina Dec 6 '11 at 22:29
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One way of thinking about it is to see estar as not necessarily dealing with permanence, but condition (estado) as opposed to being (ser). Being dead is a (albeit permanent) condition or situation that a human is in. –  jrdioko Dec 6 '11 at 22:35
    
n this link you can find a good answer about the same question as the one you asked: spanish.about.com/od/usingparticularverbs/a/muerto.htm –  Javi Dec 6 '11 at 22:49
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I'm not sure there are always hard rules for things in language. Another exception to the permanance rule for using ser and estar is the location of buildings: La escuela está en Mango Street. –  JohnJamesSmith Dec 7 '11 at 2:58
    
There are always hard rules; they are just not always obvious or even known yet. That's what the entire field of linguistics is about. –  Paul Legato Jan 1 at 19:10

7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Although it is true that estar usually indicates a non-permanent, temporary condition whereas ser usually signals a permanent condition, you have to take into account that estar is normally used to express a condition resulting from a transformation, process or actual change, and ser is normally used when referring to an inherent characteristic, with no involvement of process, change or transformation; in other words, ser normally has the purpose of including the subject into a certain class.

This explains why there are some adjectives that express a permanent condition but can only be combined with estar: this is so because they express the result of a change or transformation; muerto is one of those adjectives, and another example is roto: el vaso está roto and not el vaso es roto.

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This can't be correct, since "ser" is used for professions (among other things): "Jorge es médico." Becoming a doctor is most certainly a condition that results from a process (going to medical school), yet one uses "ser" for it. –  Paul Legato Jan 1 at 18:58
    
@Paul: it is correct, but it has exceptions. The arbitrariness of languages is everywhere. –  Lucas Oct 1 at 10:36
    
@Lucas if essentially arbitrary exceptions are needed, this means that the supposed rule is incorrect or incomplete in some way. Languages aren't arbitrary, but the rules are sometimes complex and non-obvious. This is what the field of linguistics studies. –  Paul Legato Oct 8 at 4:03
    
@Paul Legato: Ok, then look harder and tell me when you find the rule without exceptions. –  Lucas Oct 8 at 13:01
    
@Lucas, it's not about me; this is what professional academic linguists do all day. Finding the rules for ser vs. estar is an active area of research right now. This doesn't mean there are no rules or that language is arbitrary; it just means the rules are complex and haven't been fully figured out yet. Linguists have resolved many supposedly arbitrary situations in the past, and I have every confidence that they will do so again in this case in time. –  Paul Legato Oct 8 at 23:14

I think it's because you use "ser" + participle when it's passive voice:

The fire was put out by him. (El fuego fue apagado por él.)

And you use "estar" in other cases:

I'm very bored right now. (Ahora mismo estoy muy aburrido.)

As I side note, we never say "es muerto". It's sounds unidiomatic and I don't even think it would make any sense when writing poetry either.

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usually one use "estar" to describe a non-permanent characteristic or something subject to change its state. "ser" it is used to described something permanent or an inherent characteristic of something. But in this case, "estar muerto" you need to use the verb "estar" because "estar muerto comes from the participle form of the verb "morir = el ha muerto" so almost any adjetive or characteristic that comes from the participle of a Verb use "estar". for instance, A door can be open or close, it is not permanent. but you say "la ventana ESTA abierta, la ventana ESTA cerrada" because "abierta/abierto" is the participle of "abrir" as "cerrada/cerrado" is the participle of "cerrar". if you use the verb "ser" with these participles then you are using the passive voice. so if you say "el esta muerto"= he is dead "es es muerto" it would be something like he is being killed.

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While agreeing with Gonzalo Medina's explanation, I would like to add my rule of thumb for this one. "Ser" means that the property does not change for the object, while "Estar" means a transition.

So, "él está muerto" because he was alive before, but "mi camiseta es verde" because it will not change by itself(*1). In the case of "verde", you can also say "la manzana está aún verde", because while the T-shirt does not change by itself, the apple does.

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"la manzana está verde" means the apple is green, in the sense of not ripe. If you're talking about a granny smith, you could say "la manzana es verde"; and it could actually be both... "la mansana está verde y es verde"... –  Flimzy Dec 6 '11 at 22:54
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Yes (I did not remember the english word for "verde (no madura)". Very good example, btw –  SJuan76 Dec 6 '11 at 23:09
    
@SJuan76 I guess the word you're looking for is "green" or "unripe" –  Javi Dec 6 '11 at 23:15
    
@SJuan76: "green" is the common word, but "immature" would also work. –  Flimzy Dec 6 '11 at 23:40
    
This is incorrect, as per previous comments: Jorge era flaco pero ahora es gordo. Jorge era estudiante pero ahora es médico. Jorge nació en México pero ahora es ciudadano de España. Weight, citizenship, profession, and many other things are not permanent and are routinely changed by various transitions, yet use "ser" rather than "estar". –  Paul Legato Jan 1 at 19:06

Soy muerto is not incorrect, just not commonly used:

       ¿Piensas tú que no soy muerto                
    por no ser todas de muerte              
    mis heridas?            
    Pues sabe que puede, cierto,            
    acabar lo menos fuerte          
    muchas vidas;           
       mas está en mi fe mi vida,           
    y mi fe está en el vivir                
    de quien me pena;               
    así que de mi herida            
    yo nunca puedo morir            
    sino de ajena.

A la fortuna, de Jorge Manrique (a very good poet)

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Though I agree that it may be possible "soy muerto", I just want to point out that Jorge Manrique was a poet of the 15th century and there may be some differences between that Spanish and the current one. –  Javi Dec 7 '11 at 1:00
    
@Javi I just want to point out that I wish I could write like that :) –  belisarius Dec 7 '11 at 1:27
    
Medieval Spanish usage varies in many ways from modern usage. Nobody would say "ser muerto" today (unless they were trying to imitate a medieval style.) –  Paul Legato Jan 1 at 19:07

I think the answer is that while ser defines the subject, estar defines its state.

So one defines characteristics, the other one defines conditions. The rule "permanent", "non permanent" is a good rule, but a rule of thumb, so not always true:

  • John is tall — characteristic — Juan es alto.
  • John is sick — condition — Juan está enfermo.

See more on this PPT document "Ser and estar" that gives some simple, yet interesting explanations.

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Yes ser muerto exists, and in past tense it means to be killed (by), as in fue muerto por asaltantes (It was killed by muggers); however, it's almost never used nowadays (except in archaic constructs). A related (and also scarcely used) expression: ha sido muerto por. –  Gonzalo Medina Dec 6 '11 at 23:22
    
@GonzaloMedina I added that just for completeness, otherwise someone would complain that I didn't add it... :) But do you confirm the other meaning I talked about? –  Alenanno Dec 6 '11 at 23:23
    
@Alenanno Can you provide an example of the use of "ser muerto" as "to be boring"?, thanks. –  Javi Dec 6 '11 at 23:29
    
@Javi This one comes from my grammar textbook: "Esta película es un muerto." –  Alenanno Dec 6 '11 at 23:33
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I always prefer to related Spanish ser to English essence since those words are in fact related, just as Spanish estar and English state are related. –  hippietrail Dec 7 '11 at 10:23

Because estar is used to signify that they weren't always dead--that they were once alive.

Ser is used to indicate a state of being--that they were always that way and always will be.

To say es muerto is incorrect because they used to be alive. Therefore, estar.

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I wasn't always a computer programmer, yet "soy programadora de computadoras." :) –  Flimzy Dec 6 '11 at 22:52
    
indeed "es muerto" is not incorrect, but quite unusual. It would be the passive voice of verb "morir" that when it is transitive it means kill, so "él es muerto por..." means "he's killed by..." though this meaning quite unused and doesn't sound natural (morir is usually used as an intransitive verb and we use "asesinar" with "kill" meaning) –  Javi Dec 6 '11 at 22:56
    
This can't be correct, since "ser" is used for professions, citizenship, and so on: "Jorge es médico, Jorge es ciudadano de tal país", etc. Professions and citizenship can be acquired; people who have them did not necessarily always have them, and will not necessarily always have them in the future. –  Paul Legato Jan 1 at 19:01

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