ser bueno - estar bien/bueno

Mastering the ser/estar+bueno/bien combinations is something even advanced learners struggle with. There are several factors at play which influence the choice of verb and adjective/adverb.


1) First off, it's worth bearing in mind that the adjective 'bueno', like 'good/nice' in English, has a very wide range of interpretations depending on the context and the position in the sentence:1-2

-un buen día [agradable/placentero; ojo, también como expresión 'un buen día' significa 'en un momento indeterminado y de forma repentina']

-una buena persona [bondadosa/noble]

-un buen rato/trecho [mucho/largo]

-un buen vino [de calidad]

-una buena tunda [grande/mucha]

-una buena oportunidad [aprovechable/positiva]

-un buen ejercicio [útil/beneficioso]


2) When talking about things whose state doesn't change, ser bueno is used for the quality or one of the other meanings mentioned above; estar (muy) bien is common when referring to our perception or experience of a thing, i.e. we liked it - see ser/estar avanzado

-La película es buena — The film is good [Uso atributivo; the film is of high quality; categorical statement]

-(Matrix) es una buena película / es una película buena — Matrix is a good film [See adjective position below]

→La película está muy bien o ha estado/estuvo muy bien — The film is/was good [The experience is/was good; I am enjoying/ I enjoyed it; this is actually far more common than 'ser buena' when talking about one's experience of a film; in the past you would use 'estuvo bien' since 'fue buena' sounds like the film no longer exists or it stopped being good at some point.]


-La fiesta fue buena/interesante — The party was good/interesting [Uso atributivo; unlike the film, the party is a delimited event; 'fue buena' is more categorical than 'estuvo bien', which tells us that the speaker liked it]

-Fue una buena fiesta — It was a good party [Could be quality, size and enjoyment]

→La fiesta estuvo muy bien/interesante — The party was good/interesting [With 'estar' we express our subjective experience of the party, not categorical, i.e. they found it interesting/to be good - see estuvo/estaba]


-Ese hotel es bueno/malo — That hotel is good/bad [The hotel is of high quality]

→Ese hotel está (muy) bien — That hotel is all right/good/fine [I think it's fine; I like it]

→Ese hotel no está (nada) mal — That hotel isn't bad (at all)


3) The position of the adjectives bueno and malo is the subject of numerous analyses, and there is no single rule of thumb. As discussed previously, when the adjective follows the noun it tends to be restrictive –that is, it restricts or differentiates the noun from others of its class; bueno generally goes before the noun unless the speaker wishes to use it restrictively or unless the adjective is modified by an adverb or other elements.

-Este es un buen abrigo [Non-restrictive; more subjective]

→Tengo un abrigo bueno, y otro regular para todos los días [Restrictive, differentiating it from others]

→Este es un abrigo muy bueno y muy barato [Modified by adverb and other elements]


-Es una de las películas malas que ha hecho ese director (también ha hecho algunas buenas) [Restrictive]

Es una de las malas películas que ha hecho ese director (quizá todas sean malas) [Non-restrictive]


4) For people, ser bueno/malo is used to describe a person's good nature or morality; estar bueno is used to describe a person's physical appearance or condition, i.e. sexy, hot, attractive, fit. Estar malo means someone is sick, while estar mal can be used for not well in a broader sense (but not necessarily physically sick). In certain contexts, estar bien/mal can also refer to a person's general physical condition.

-Juan es muy bueno — Juan is very nice/kind/good

-Juan es (una) buena persona — Juan is a good/nice person

→Juan está muy bueno / está buenorro — Juan is very hot/nice/attractive

-Juan está bien — Juan is fine

-Juan está muy bien (para su edad) — Juan is in good shape [Referring to appearance or physical state]


-Juan es malo  Juan is bad/evil

-Juan es (una) mala persona — Juan is a bad/evil person

→Juan está malo — Juan is sick

-Juan está mal (de la cabeza /de ánimo / de dinero / de salud) — Juan is unwell/ill

-Juan no está (nada) mal — Juan is not (at all) bad [Referring to appearance or physical state]


5) When referring to people, similar to things, the position of bueno can affect its meaning ever-so slightly. As discussed previously, pre-posed adjectives tend to favour the non-intersective or adverbial interpretation, e.g. 'un mal organizador' ≈ 'como organizador es malo u organiza mal' as opposed to 'es un organizador y es malo'. As noted in the A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish "[...] in the case of bueno and malo, the pre-posed adjective may unambiguously refer to competence rather than moral qualities [...]". However, as mentioned above, the restrictive factor also comes into play.4-5-6

-Juan es un abogado alto [Intersectivo; Es abogado y es alto; Como abogado es alto??] 

-Juan es un buen abogado [No intersectivo; como abogado es bueno, quizá sea una mala persona]

-Juan es un abogado bueno [Es (buen) abogado y es bueno; favorece esta interpretación aunque no es la única]

-Ese abogado es muy bueno [Atributivo]


-Es un mal abogado

-¿Por qué siempre tengo que hacer de abogado malo, y tú de bueno? [No necesariamente malo como abogado sino 'malo' como persona a diferencia de 'bueno']


-¿Quién es ese? -Es un buen amigo suyo que es más malo que el hambre [Es bueno como amigo pero mala persona]


6) For food and other perishable things, estar bueno/malo refers to the condition or taste rather than the quality. 

-Este aceite es bueno — This oil is good [It is of good quality or good for one's health]

-Es un buen aceite / Es un aceite bueno — It's a good oil

→Este aceite está bueno — This oil is tasty /nice

Este aceite está (muy) bien — This oil is good/ decent/ all right [Not as good as 'bueno'; maybe referring to value for money or other positive features]


-Este aceite es malo — This oil is bad [It is of bad quality or bad for one's health]

-Es un mal aceite/ Es un aceite malo — It's a bad oil

→Este aceite está malo — This oil is off/bad/rancid

Este aceite no está mal — This oil isn't bad


7) When the subject is a verb in infinitive or a subordinate clause, often both ser bueno/malo and estar bien/mal are possible. The difference can be very subtle, and usage varies between countries: with estar bien/mal the speaker is usually giving their subjective opinion, expressing what they think is good/nice or bad/wrong; while ser bueno/malo tends to sound like an established fact, telling us what is beneficial or detrimental in general.

-Creo que es bueno saberlo antes de empezar — I think it's good to know (that) before beginning [Es beneficioso/ventajoso saberlo]

→Gracias por la información. Está bien saberlo — Thanks for the information. It's good/nice to know [Me parece bien saberlo; no está de más saberlo]


-Sería bueno que vinieras — It would be good if you came [Sería beneficioso o positivo para alguien o en general]

→Estaría bien que vinieras — It would be good/nice/all right if you came [Más subjetivo; me parece bien; no estaría de más]


-Está mal que diga eso — It's wrong for him to say that [≈ Me parece mal/ no me gusta]

No está bien — It's not right/OK

-Es malo que diga eso — It's bad for him to say that [≈Resulta negativo o perjudicial] 

No es bueno — It's not good


-Estar mucho tiempo sentado es malo/ está mal/ no está bien — Spending a lot of time seated is bad/ wrong/ not right [Con 'ser malo' entendemos que es malo/perjudicial para la salud; con 'estar mal' endendemos que está mal visto o nos parece mal]


8) Estar mal can also translate as 'incorrect' or 'wrong'.

-El teléfono en la página web está mal — The phone number on the webpage is wrong

-La respuesta está mal — The answer is wrong


9) Often confused are 'hacer algo mal' and 'hacer algo malo'. In this case the adjective 'malo' would be 'bad/wrong', applying to the noun; while the adverb mal would be 'wrong/incorrectly', referring to the way something has been done.

-No he hecho nada mal — I haven't done anything wrong [The wrong way, e.g. wash wool at 100 degrees]

→No he hecho nada malo — I haven't done anything bad [Anything that shouldn't be done, e.g. steal]


-No has hecho nada bien en toda tu vida — You haven't done anything right in your entire life [ i.e. you always screw things up]

No has hecho nada bueno en toda tu vida — You haven't done anything good in your entire life [e.g. donate blood, help the poor]


 10) Also commonly confused are qué bien and qué bueno in exclamations; in this case usage varies between countries. In Spain, qué bien is used as a response to express pleasant surprise when receiving a good piece of news; qué bueno, meanwhile, is used to extol the quality of something, often a joke, a performance, or similar.

-El año que viene me quedo aquí en Granada -¡Qué bien (que te quedes), tío! — Next year I'm staying here in Granada -That's great/Nice one, mate!

-¿Dónde caga Batman? En el Bat-er -¡Qué bueno, tío! — Where does Batman shit? On the Bater-er -That's a good one, mate!


11) In a few fixed expressions, ¡estar bueno! is used ironically to say that a situation is far from good -see discussion.

-No te preocupes. No pienso denunciarte -¡Estaría bueno! — -Don't worry. I don't plan to report you  -I should (jolly well) hope not!

-Pues (sí que) estamos buenos: se nos ha acabado la leña y estamos a 5 bajo cero fuera — Well that's just great: the firewood has run out and it's minus 5 outside


-ser bueno - estar bien/bueno-