Confusing Verbs: Determining Which Verb to Use

When you learn Spanish, there are a few instances where two specific verbs are translated to the same English verb and are not interchangeable. It is important to learn the situations where each verb is appropriate because, in some cases, the meaning of the sentence is altered if you use the wrong verb.

Ser or estar

Both of the verbs ser and estar mean “to be,” but each indicates a specific type of “being.” Ser is used to describe more permanent states of being, and estar is generally used for more temporary states; but there are some exceptions.

Learning all the rules can be difficult, especially when there are many different sets to learn, but acronyms can make it easier. An acronym is a pronouncable word formed by the first letters of a set of specific phrases or series of words used to help you remember the details of the information.

In Table 1, the first letters of each reason spell out the acronym “C‐NOTE” to help you remember the reasons for using the verb ser. Consider the examples in Table 1, and look for the form of ser in each sentence to see how it is used.

Think of the E as representing Event location because this is an exception to the rule that estar is used for locations.

Generally the verb estar indicates a temporary state of being, but when you see the specific reasons for using estar, you will notice that the location of a building or geographical feature is indicated with estar, and this is not exactly temporary. Consider the examples in Table 2 to see how the verb is used in sentences.

Conocer or saber

Conocer and saber are two verbs that can be translated to the English verb “to know.” Conocer is the verb to use when you could just as correctly say “to be acquainted with.” It is most often used with people, but can also refer to familiarity with a place. Use the verb conocer any time you want to say that you know a person or that you know your way around a place. Whenever conocer is followed by a person or a word that refers to a person, the verb will be followed by the preposition a.

        Yo conozco a Manuel. 
          I know (am acquainted with) Manuel.

         Conoces bien la ciudad de Guatemala. 
          You are well acquainted with Guatemala City.


Saber is used to indicate knowledge of a fact or knowledge of how to do something. It is often followed by an infinitive. When used with an infinitive, it should be thought of as “to know how” because the word “how” is not used in these situations in Spanish. When saber is used in the preterite tense, it means “found out” because it refers to the first moment something was known.

          Sabes construir una casa muy bien. 
            You know how to build a house very well.

          Yo sé la dirección. 
             I know the address.

            No vamos a la piscina porque no sabemos nadar. 
           We don't go to the pool because we don't know how to swim.

Llevar, tomar, and sacar

Llevar, tomar, and sacar all can be translated as “to take,” but each verb has a specific purpose, and you must know when each one is appropriate.

Spanish differentiates verbs according to what is being taken. Llevar means to transport something or someone from one place to another. It is not used to refer to taking a means of transportation, but rather the action of taking a person or an object to a different location. If a person is being taken somewhere, llevar is followed by the preposition a.

         Marla lleva a su sobrina a la playa. 
           Marla takes her niece to the beach.

           Juan y Andrés llevan los refrescos a la fiesta. 
          John and Andrew take the drinks to the party.

         Llevas a un amigo a la fiesta. 
           You are taking a friend to the party

Tomar is used when taking a means of transportation or when taking something by mouth, such as medicine or a bite of food or a drink.

        El nunca toma un taxi. 
         He never takes a taxi.

           Es importante tomar vitaminas. 
           It's important to take vitamins

           Toman muchas bebidas frías durante el verano 
           They take “in” many cold drinks during the summer

Sacar is most often translated as “to take out,” so you would use it to say things like “take out the garbage” or “take out your homework.” Remember that there is no need to use the preposition “out” after sacar, even though in most cases where this verb is used in English it is followed by “out.” Sacar is also used when taking a photograph, even though the English expression does not include the preposition “out.”

  • Yo saco muchas fotos durante mis vacaciones. 
    I take many photographs during my vacations.

  • Ustedes necesitan sacar la tarea. 
    You all need to take out the homework.

Los niños sacan la basura el viernes. 
The children take out the garbage on Friday

The English verb “to take” is often followed by a preposition that completely changes the overall meaning. The same expressions in Spanish usually do not require a preposition, but rather a completely different verb. A good way to test the quality of your Spanish/English dictionary is to look up the verb “to take” on the English side and see if the entry specifies the different Spanish verbs that mean: to take on, to take over, to take off, to take up, etc.