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Different Verbs, Same Idea? Let's Not Get Philosophical

The Spanish verbs tener (to have), haber (especially the impersonal verb form hay), ser and estar (both "to be") can sometimes be interchanged or used in similar ways to express the same idea. Recently, one of our subscribers asked us to tackle the subject. Since these verbs are indeed among the list of the most useful, versatile, and difficult verbs in the Spanish lexicon, we thought... What are we waiting for?! 


In Spanish we use hay, the impersonal form of the verb haber (to have) to express a necessity. The formula is always hay que:


Es decir, hay que compartir.

I mean, it's necessary to share.

Caption 20, 75 minutos - Gangas para ricos

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However, it's also possible to use the verbs tener (to have) or ser (to be) to express the same idea. Here's what the phrases would look like:

With tenerEs decir, se tiene que compartir.
With ser (you can't use estar): Es decir, es necesario compartir.

Is there a difference between them? Not really. OK, maybe a very subtle one, practically inexistent: it could be argued that the level of urgency in which the necessity is expressed is different for each sentence. Hay que is more pressing, se tiene is a little less, and es necesario is even lesser. It's really a negligible and debatable difference, so feel free to use them indistinctly.


Another case. We can use hay to express the concept of "there are/there is."


Creo que hay muchas personas haciendo "circuit bending"

I believe that there are many people doing circuit bending

Caption 70, Lo que no sabías - Arte electrónico

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Can we use the other verbs to express the same idea? Well, this is a tricky matter. Of course, the following sentences are all possible in Spanish:


With tener

Creo que tenemos muchas personas haciendo "circuit bending" / I believe we have a lot of people doing circuit bending.

With estar: 

Creo que están muchas personas haciendo "circuit bending" / I believe a lot of people are doing circuit bending.

In fact, the usual order would be: Creo que muchas personas están haciendo "circuit bending."

With ser:

Creo que son muchas personas haciendo "circuit bending" / I believe they are many, the people doing circuit bending.

Take note that saying Creo que muchas personas son haciendo circuit bending is totally incorrect.


You can see that the first sentence using tener (to have) is very similar to the example using hay even though they are not exactly the same. The second example using estar is, however, the closer to the original one that uses hay. The only difference is they employ different verbs, haber (to have) and estar (to be). The third one is the really tricky one, because the subtle difference between the use of ser and estar (both "to be") gets lost in English. Maybe, in this particular context, you could use son muchas personas instead of hay muchas personas. 


Just remember that in Spanish the use of the verb ser (to be) implies a more fundamental situation, while the use of estar implies a more temporal one, one that might change, one that depends on external factors like time and space. Ser is more about the essence of things and situations. Its meaning is broad and less determined by context. Therefore, using ser results in a shift of the sentence's focus from the action of doing circuit bending to the nature or state of being many, which is something we tried to mimic in our translation. In fact, that's the reason why the sentence only works using exactly that word order; so the verb son (ser/to be) modifies muchas personas. But you can't use ser to modify the verb haciendo, that is, to talk about an action that may be happening now, but may or may not happen tomorrow. For that you must use the verb están (estar/to be): están haciendo. Let's put it with apples:

Hay manzanas en la mesa / There are apples on the table.
Tenemos manzanas en la mesa / We have apples on the table.
Las manzanas están en la mesa / The apples are on the table.

Las manzanas son en la mesa /

This last example can't be used instead of any of the previous ones. In fact, it can't really be used at all, unless you are taking part in some kind of philosophical discussion. Saying this in Spanish would mean something like "The apples exists on the table." 


Let's now see an example where you can use ser but not estar:


Pero siempre vamos a encontrar que hay una gran similitud.

But we are always going to find that there is a great similarity.

Caption 40, Beatriz Noguera - Exposición de Arte

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The following sentences are not exactly the same; however, in some contexts they may be used to express the same idea, with subtle differences. Please note that in the following examples we have added possible contexts in parentheses.

With tener

Pero siempre vamos a encontrar que tenemos una gran similitud (entre chabacanos y duraznos) But we are always going to find that we have a great similarity (between apricots and peaches).

The sentence may mean something different in a different context, though. For example: 

Tenemos una gran similitud (entre nosotros) We have a great similarity (between each other).

With ser:

Pero siempre vamos a encontrar que es una gran similitud (la que existe entre chabacanos y duraznos) But we are always going to find that there is a great similarity (that exists between apricots and peaches).

Notice how the verb ser here modifies similitud (the similarity is fundamentally great), and we need to use existe (to exist)—we could also use hay (there are)—in a complicated circunloquio (circumlocution) so we can convey the idea of the first example. You can't ever say something like es una gran similitud entre chabacanos y duraznos.


With estar


It's not possible to use the verb estar (to be) to express this idea. You can't ever say something like está una gran similitud entre chabacanos y duraznos. This is wrong because you use estar to express non intrinsic situations, and when we talk about the similarity of apricots and peaches we are necessarily comparing their fundamental way of being, their intrinsic nature, what makes them what they are and not, let's say, bananas and apples. 


Ok. Keeping all this in mind, let's put you to the test: Are the following sentences possible in Spanish? If they are, do they mean the same thing? 

Los gemelos son igualitos.
Los gemelos están igualitos.

The answer is yes, both sentences are possible in Spanish. What's the difference between them, then? 


Well, the first sentence is either talking about the fundamental similarity that exists between twins, any twins in general (Twins are identical), or it's talking about a particular couple of twins, which we refer to as "the twins," and the idea would translate as "The twins are identical." Using ser here stresses the idea that they are identical because they are identical in something that is intrinsic to them, not because they are wearing the same outfit or have the same haircut, for example. On the contrary, the second sentence, using estar, can't be used to talk about any twins in general. It can only be used to refer to a certain couple of twins. The translation is then, "The twins are identical."


By the way, fun fact: the diminutive igualito (from igual = same) paradoxically functions as a kind of augmentative: igualito means "very same," "identical."



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