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For example:

¿Qué día es hoy? Hoy es sábado.

How do I know which conjugation of ser to pick here? I thought ser was when talking to he/she. Why is it picked here when we don't know who the sentence is talking too?

  • Maybe you heard that conjugation depended on the person of the verb. That's not a person as in a he or a she, but grammatical person (first, second or third person). – pablodf76 Dec 4 '17 at 16:27
  • the verb "is" is a conjugation of the verb "be"(ser), and "is" will always be translated to Spanish as "es" unless is conjugated with the verb "you" , then it will be translated to "eres"(singular) or ""son" singular. when it can be conjugated with "you" , in questions : "is it you?" (¿eres tu?) – Mike Dec 4 '17 at 19:22
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Ser is a verb. It has different forms according to person and number (and mood, but let's forget that for now). These we call conjugations. The conjugation of ser is highly irregular but it's just another verb.

Grammatical person is part of the conjugation of all Spanish verbs. There are three classical grammatical persons: the speaker, the addressee (or hearer), and everyone else. These are conventionally termed the first, second and third person, respectively. If what the verb "does" is being done by the one who utters the sentence, then the verb will be in the first person. If it is the addressee that is doing it, the verb will be in the second person. If it is some other person (outside the speaker and the hearer), or some animal or thing or even abstract concept that is the subject of the verb, then the verb will be in the third person.

All of the above is not specifically Spanish grammar, but works for most or all languages on some level.

If you have a question about "today", then that's in the third person. "Today" (hoy in Spanish) is an abstract concept representing "the present day". It's not the speaker(s) (which would mean "I" or "we") and not the addressee ("you"). The third person singular, present tense, indicative mood, of ser, is es:

—¿Qué día es hoy?
—Hoy es lunes.

Your confusion might stem from the fact that you expect explicit third person pronouns (the equivalents of "he" or "she") to be next to a third person verb. This is not how it works. A first person verb explicitly or implicitly takes the first person pronoun yo or its plural nosotros, and likewise, a second person verb implicitly or explicitly takes or vos or ustedes or vosotros. The third person, however, is of a different kind, as explained above. Everything that is not a participant of the conversation (between the speaker and the addressee) is third person, no matter what. It can be stated as a pronoun or as a full noun phrase. If it is a personal pronoun, it can be él or ella or ellos or ellas, but it can also be a demonstrative (esto, eso, aquello and the like) or anything else. It can be nothing as well, since as you might know, in Spanish most subjects (including pronouns) can be dropped if understood in context.

Finally, you ask "Why is it picked here when we don't know who the sentence is talking to?". That isn't the way Spanish verbs work. Spanish verbs are conjugated by the person and number of the grammatical subject of the sentence, not of whom we are speaking to (or about). The closest thing to that would be the difference we make between formal and informal pronouns and verb forms in the second person (see T-V distinction, usted). That has nothing to do with this example, though.

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It's very considerate of you to focus on the recipient! But that's not how conjugation works. When you conjugate a verb, you have to be subjective! In other words, base the conjugation on who the subject is. Focus on who's doing the action, or who's doing the being.

In English, when we conjugate "to be", we say:

I am

you are

he is, she is, it is

etc.

Also,

I cook

you cook

he cooks, she cooks, it cooks

So, we choose the verb ending, or conjugation, based on the subject.

Yo soy norteamericano.

Tú eres mexicano.

Ella es mi hermana.

Nosotros somos seres humanos.

Etc.

"Today" will cause a conjugation like "it." "It is Saturday." "Hoy es sábado." That's different from "You are Mexican." "Tú eres mexicano." "Eres" goes with "tú". "Es" goes with the third person singular, for example "she" or "it" or "today."

Hope that helps.

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