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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    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
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 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. Commented Dec 7, 2011 at 2:58
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    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. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:10
  • I did some research into academic linguistics papers on this topic, and the short answer is that nobody knows in the general case. There are many proposed theories that remove some categories of exceptions, but none that seems to cover all of the cases yet. Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 4:07

8 Answers 8


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.

  • 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. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 18:58
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    @Paul: it is correct, but it has exceptions. The arbitrariness of languages is everywhere.
    – Lucas
    Commented Oct 1, 2014 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. Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 4:03
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    @Paul Legato: Ok, then look harder and tell me when you find the rule without exceptions.
    – Lucas
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 13:01
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    @paullegato: Médico is a noun. You use 'ser' to unite one noun (e.g. él) with another noun (médico). Muerto, in the context of the example you gave, is an adjective. The rule applies to adjectives, not nouns.
    – Paul
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 4:27

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
    Commented Dec 7, 2011 at 1:00
  • @Javi I just want to point out that I wish I could write like that :) Commented Dec 7, 2011 at 1:27
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    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.) Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:07
  • I've been told that "soy muerto" can colloquially mean "I'm very bored" (estoy muy aburrido). Is this correct?
    – GMA
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 12:50
  • @George I haven't heard that. Perhaps some localism Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 14:54

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.

  • 3
    "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
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 22:54
  • 1
    Yes (I did not remember the english word for "verde (no madura)". Very good example, btw
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 23:09
  • @SJuan76 I guess the word you're looking for is "green" or "unripe"
    – Javi
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 23:15
  • 1
    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". Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:06
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    @paullegato: weight, citizenship, and professions are nouns. You should limit your critique of the rule strictly to the adjectives (e.g. Gordo & flaco is valid).
    – Paul
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 6:52

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.

  • 4
    I wasn't always a computer programmer, yet "soy programadora de computadoras." :)
    – Flimzy
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 22:52
  • 2
    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
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 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. Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:01
  • I've been told that "soy muerto" can colloquially mean "I'm very bored" (estoy muy aburrido). Is this correct?
    – GMA
    Commented Jan 15, 2016 at 12:50

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.

  • 2
    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. Commented Dec 6, 2011 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
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 23:23
  • @Alenanno Can you provide an example of the use of "ser muerto" as "to be boring"?, thanks.
    – Javi
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 23:29
  • 3
    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. Commented Dec 7, 2011 at 10:23
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    "fue muerto por asaltantes" is a case of the passive voice, not a translation of "being dead." It translates "He was killed by attackers", not "he is dead." Commented Jan 1, 2014 at 19:08

In modern Spanish both verbs ser and estar can be used with muerto.

Estar is used to describe the condition of being dead. The key is that the subject has not always been dead; the subject was alive sometime in the past. So, here being dead or alive is a transient condition. Other adjectives that depict a transient condition are vivo, enfermo, sano, preso, libre, soltero, casado, divorciado, viudo

El hombre está vivo
El hombre está sano
El hombre está libre
El hombre está casado

Examples like libre, soltero, casado, divorciado, viudo can also have the verb ser without changing the meaning.

El hombre es libre
El hombre es soltero
El hombre es divorciado

Sano can be preceded by the verb ser but the meaning is altered.

El hombre es sano (means that the man is healthy, not only is well but he probably has a healthy life that maintains him well)

With adjectives like muerto, casado, divorciado and sano (although with sano is somewhat weird) you can use tenses other than present to indicate that the new condition is initiated by the action of a third party.

Fue muerto a balazos
Serán casados por un ministro
Ha sido divorciado en dos ocasiones (correct but estado is more usual)
Y por su palabra fue sano (It's correct but somewhat archaic)


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.


Usually one uses "estar" to describe a non-permanent characteristic or something subject to changing its state. "Ser" is used to describe 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 = él ha muerto" so almost any adjetive or characteristic that comes from the participle of a verb uses "estar".

For instance, a window can be open or closed, it is not permanent. But you say "la ventana ESTÁ abierta, la ventana ESTÁ 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 "él está muerto"= he is dead; "él es muerto" would be something like "he is being killed".

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