University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


Spanish has two copulas, ser and estar, which are often translated as English ‘be’. Here, we study their differences by investigating their contrastive distributional patterns in combination with adjectival predicates. Specifically, we test the processing predictions of a presupposition-based analysis (Deo et al. 2016) that accounts for a wide range of distributional patterns of the copulas. This analysis has the advantage that it explains the variable copulas’ uses observed across Spanish varieties. Our focus is on Iberian and Mexican Spanish.

The presupposition-based analysis establishes a clear-cut distinction between the two copulas: estar presupposes the contingency of the prejacent, ser does not. Accordingly, the use of estar requires that the common ground contextually entails that its prejacent is contingent. If the common ground does not imply the contingency of the prejacent, this new information would need to be accommodated by the hearer. We hypothesize that estar predications, when presented in isolation with adjectival predicates that show a preference to appear with ser, will engender a processing cost as a result of adding to the common ground the proposition that the prejacent holds contingently.

This hypothesis is tested in two studies, an acceptability questionnaire and a self-paced reading. The results show that when the context does not explicitly support estar’s presupposition, sentences are scored lower (study 1, acceptability questionnaire) and read slower (study 2, self-paced reading) by both Iberian and Mexican speakers. In addition, the data provide experimental evidence for the ‘constrained’ variability across Spanish dialects. The results suggest that Mexican speakers are able to accommodate the contingency-presupposition of estar without relying on explicit contextual cues to a larger extent than Iberian speakers. Altogether, the data support an analysis of copula distinction in Spanish that takes into account the contingency-presupposition of estar and the variability in copula use across Spanish dialects.