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I'm listening to Michael Thomas Spanish (disc 3, episode 6) and learning Castilian Spanish.

In this he explains the characteristics between ser and estar, which I thought I'd understood - ser is a constant characteristic and estar is a current characteristic.

An example from the CD is Pablo está bien vestido hoy - I understand why it's from the verb estar and not ser! He's only well dressed today.

However, at the end of the track, he asks a student to translate

I am a professor

and he said it was

Soy profesor

This is where I'm confused. We can change jobs and as such, I would have thought Estoy professor is more accurate? Or would this statement imply you're about to change job?

My question is why is it soy? Is it just an exception to my understanding (as defined above) or is my understanding between the 2 verbs incorrect?

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To be a professor is a permanent characteristic, an attribute of the person, unrelated to their employment status. If you are a professor, you can be an unemployed professor, a professor working as a lumberjack, or whatever. You studied and became a professor. It's the same with all professions and trades; you use ser with them. Also, although it doesn't suit as well the model ser - permanent, estar - temporary, you use ser for positions, too.

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    @Dave yes, just ser. Think that the language developed in times without any job mobility, and where, generally, your "position" was your trade or profession, and you did it your whole life. – angus Sep 8 '16 at 13:11
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    Even we say "soy un hombre", but nowadays many people change their sex. – skan Sep 8 '16 at 15:30
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    @Dave in that case you can say soy músico pero estoy trabajando de cajero. – Charlie Sep 8 '16 at 18:11
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    @CarlosAlejo That's it. The world is full of actors who work as waiters. One of the brilliant spoofs by El Mundo Today reflects that: elmundotoday.com/2013/04/… – Gorpik Sep 9 '16 at 6:44
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    Just not to confuse @Dave with this conversation, you'd say estoy trabajando (= trabajo) de camarero, but never *estoy camarero. – angus Sep 9 '16 at 8:15
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Permanent vs. temporary can be a useful shorthand for ser vs. estar, but it's also an oversimplification. According to Cisneros' "Spanish in Three Months", the various usages of ser vs estar can be broken down as follows:

Ser:

  • identity - "Soy Carmen."
  • possession - "El perro es de Juan."
  • origin - "Son de Madrid."
  • nationality - "Somos ingleses."
  • occupation - "Es arquitecto."
  • material of which a thing is made - "El reloj es de oro."
  • inherent characteristic - "Es muy alto."
  • expression of time - "Son las cinco," "Hoy es lunes."
  • impersonal expression - "Es mejor esperar," "Es difícil aprender."
  • with past participle, in the passive voice - "El ladrón es apresado por la policía."

Estar:

  • temporary states or conditions - "Pedro está enfermo."
  • position/location, temporary or permanent - "Carmen está en el salón." "Valencia está en España."
  • with present participle, in continuous tenses - "Están jugando."
  • with preposition para or por ('to be about to') - "El tren está por llegar."

So to answer the question, occupation is 'ser' because it just is. Personally I found it hard to memorise all these distinctions straight up, but I find that the more I read in Spanish, the more I get a feel for it.

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It is about pride too. For example, I am dropout of architecture, I study languages and work as a waiter. Depending of who I am talking to I would say one thing of the other, mostly when it is about a job interview it changes a lot. I almost graduated so I would say that I only studied it and that's it (Estudié arquitectura). I do not think that waiter is what defines me the most so I would not say I am a waiter (Soy camarero) if I am not in an interview for that job. Well, when I meet new people I like to keep it humble and just say that I study languages to prevent stupid conversations of who should be called linguist, the graduated or the skilful - I have a good IELTS score though.

So my point is that when you have second thoughts on where to use "ser" or "estar" think about the pride too. For example, it would be a little misleading if I say that I am an architect (soy arquictecto) cause the correct way would be "Estoy en proceso de ser arquitecto o estoy estudiando para ser arquitecto". And in the opposite case, I would say that I am working as a waiter and not that I am a waiter:

  • Trabajo de camarero (meeting new people)
  • Soy camarero (job interview)

I hope it is helpful to you.

  • This has been covered (a little) in the comments of Angus's answer but you've managed to explain it very well (thank you). It appears that the correct phrase is "Soy [profession]", but if you want (or don't want) people to know it is what you actually do, then changing the sentence to "working as a [profession]" is the correct way; I think the point is it's never "Estoy [profession]". Is this correct? – Dave Sep 12 '16 at 7:41
  • @Dave you're welcome. And good way of summarizing the final conclusions -> you never say "estoy + profession". Cause nobody did it after all, and it is necessary for the Spanish learners that may come after in this question. Great job. – Cristian Sep 12 '16 at 11:04
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A useful mnemonic (from SpanishDict):

For "ser", remember DOCTOR, which stands for Description, Occupation, Characteristic, Time, Origin, and Relationship. This also helps one remember the "occupation" part in particular, because "doctor" is an occupation.

For "estar", remember PLACE, which stands for Position, Location, Action, Condition, and Emotion.

Of course this doesn't help one understand why it's that way, but it can help one remember the respective usages.

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