Grammar Guide: “Haber” vs. “Estar”

by Vanessa Johnson on Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Spanish verb haber is a common source of confusion for many Spanish learners, but it’s easy to use once you get the hang of it. The best part is that haber has only one form in each verb tense: you don’t have to conjugate it! Today’s quick Spanish grammar lesson will teach you how to use haber and how it’s different from the verb estar. Read on in English or click here for the Spanish version of this post.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Understanding the Differences Between Haber and Estar

  1. Haber is an impersonal verb. This means that it doesn’t have the six usual forms for each person (yo, tú, él, nosotros, vosotros, ellos). It has only one form, which is hay in the present tense.

  1. We use haber to indicate the location of people, objects, or places in a general way when we don’t know the people, objects, or places we’re talking about.
    • For example, in the sentence Hay un teléfono en la mesa (There is a telephone on the table), we don’t know what telephone it is or who owns it, and in the sentence Hay cuatro alumnos en la clase (There are four students in the class), we don’t know who the students are.

  1. Estar can also be used to refer to the location of people, objects, and places, but in a concrete way, when we know the things we are talking about
    • For example, in the sentence Mi teléfono está en la mesa (My phone is on the table), we’re talking about a specific phone, my phone. In the sentence Pierre, Elena, Mohammed y Jennifer están en la clase (Pierre, Elena, Mohammed, and Jennifer are in the class), we’re referring not to four students in general but to these specific four students.

Haber

Estar

un/una/unos/unas + noun.

algún(a)/algunos/as + noun.

number + noun.

Hay +

mucho/a/muchos/as + noun.

poco/a, pocos/as + noun.

uncountable noun

plural noun

el/la/los/las + noun.

posessive + noun.

+ estar

proper noun

  1. If we look at the examples above (2 and 3), we can see that haber doesn’t change (hay + singular subject; hay + plural subject), while estar does (está or están, depending on the subject).

  1. We also use haber to talk about things that do or do not exist, especially when referring to abstract nouns: No hay tiempo, tenemos que salir ya (There is no time, we have to leave now) or uncountable nouns: ¿Hay café? (Is there any coffee?).

  1. Up to this point, we have only used examples in the present tense. Hay is the impersonal form of the verb haber in the present. In other verb tenses, the third person singular is used to express the impersonal form: Hubo un acccidente en el centro (There was an accident downtown) or No había nadie en la clase (There was nobody in the class).

Si no hay preguntas (If there aren’t any questions), that brings us to the end of today’s Spanish grammar review. A special thanks to José Ramón Rodríguez, one of our teachers in Malaga, for sharing his expertise.


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