Many believe the Portuguese language to be hard to learn. But in fact, like many other languages, it is not as hard and ‘scary’ as it seems. There are some aspects that may cause difficulty – for instance, the unusual pronunciation or verb inflections – but all languages have some sort of difficulty built in and these aspects can usually be mastered if you study regularly and have a bit of patience. This article will give you an overview of the key notions in Portuguese grammar to give you an idea of what you should focus on learning.
Nouns in Portuguese are classified into two grammatical genders (masculine and feminine) and are inflected for grammatical number (singular or plural).
In many cases, the gender and number of a noun can be deduced from its ending: the basic pattern is “-o” / “-os” for masculine singular and plural, “-a” / “-as” for feminine.
However, the complete rules are quite complex: for instance, nouns ending in -ção are usually feminine, except for augmentatives like bração (“big arm”) and there are many exceptions.
For words ending in other letters, there are few rules. For instance, flor (flower), gente (folk), nau (ship), maré (tide) are feminine, while amor (love), pente (comb), pau (stick), café (coffee) are masculine.
Adjectives and determiners (articles, demonstratives, possessives, and quantifiers) must be inflected to agree with the noun in gender and number.
esta linda casa branca – this lovely white house (feminine)
este lindo carro branco – this lovely white car (masculine)
Many nouns can take diminutive or augmentative suffixes to express size, endearment, or deprecation.
café – coffee
cafezinho – coffee served as a show of hospitality
pouco – few
pouquinho – very few
Portuguese has definite and indefinite articles, with different forms according to the gender and number of the noun to which they refer: o, os, um, uns (masculine), a, as, uma, umas (feminine).
The noun after the indefinite article may be omitted, in which case the article is equivalent to English “one” (if singular) or “ones” (if plural): quero um também (I want one, too).
Adjectives normally follow the nouns that they modify. Thus “white house” is casa branca, and “green fields” is campos verdes.
However, some adjectives such as bom (good), belo (nice), and grande (great, big) often precede the noun. Indeed, some of these have rather different meanings depending on position:
um grande homem – a great man
um homem grande – a big man
Adjectives are routinely inflected for gender and number, although, some adjectives are invariable.
Comparison of adjectives is regularly expressed in analytic form using the adverb mais:
mais alto (do) que – higher than
o mais alto – the highest
Portuguese adverbs work much like their English counterparts, for example, muito (very), pouco (not much), longe (far), muito (much, a lot), quase (almost), etc.
To form adverbs from adjectives, the adverbial suffix -mente is generally added to the feminine singular of the adjective:
claro – clara – claramente (clearly)
natural – naturalmente (naturally)
As with adjectives, the comparative of adverbs is almost always formed by placing mais (more) or menos (less) before the adverb.
Adverbs of place show a three-way distinction between close to the speaker, close to the listener, and far from both:
aqui, cá – here
aí, lá – there (near you)
ali, acolá – over there (far from both of us)
The Portuguese language has the same types of pronouns as many other languages: personal (eu, você), possessive (minha, tua), demonstrative (este), reflexive (se), relative (que, qual), and interrogative (quando, onde).
Pronouns in Portuguese are often inflected for gender and number, although many have irregular inflections.
Personal pronouns are inflected according to their syntactic role. They have three main types of forms: for the subject, for the object of a verb, and for the object of a preposition.
Possessive pronouns are identical to possessive adjectives. They are inflected to agree with the gender of the possessed being or object.
Portuguese verbs display a high degree of inflection. A typical regular verb has over fifty different forms, expressing up to six different grammatical tenses and three moods.
Portuguese verbs have the following properties:
- Two numbers – singular, plural
- Three persons – first, second, third
- Three aspects – perfective, imperfective, progressive*
- Two voices – active, passive*
- Six morphological forms for tenses, aspects, and/or moods – present, preterite, imperfect, pluperfect, future, and conditional.
- Three (or four) moods – indicative, subjunctive, imperative (and conditional, according to some authors)
The passive voice can be constructed in two different ways. The pluperfect and the future of the indicative mood, as well as the conditional form, are often replaced with other verbal constructions or verbal periphrases in the spoken language.
All Portuguese verbs in their infinitive form end in the letter r. Verbs are divided into three main conjugation classes according to the vowel in their infinitive ending:
- First conjugation: -ar
- Second conjugation: -er
- Third conjugation: -ir
Tenses and moods
The tenses in Portuguese correspond to:
- Present (presente): “I do” or “I am doing”.
- Preterite (pretérito, or pretérito perfeito): “I did” or “I have done”.
- Imperfect (imperfeito, or pretérito imperfeito): “I did”, “I used to do”, “I was doing”.
- Pluperfect (mais-que-perfeito, or pretérito mais-que-perfeito): “I had done”.
- Future (futuro, or futuro do presente in Brazilian Portuguese): “I will do”, “I am going to do”.
- Conditional (condicional, or futuro do pretérito in Brazilian Portuguese): “I would do”. Used in some types of conditional sentences, as a form of courtesy, or as a future-in-the-past.
The five non-finite forms generally correspond to:
- (Impersonal) infinitive (infinitivo, or infinitivo impessoal): equivalent to English “to do”.
- Past participle (particípio, or particípio passado): equivalent to English “done”.
- Present participle (particípio presente): equivalent to English “doing”.
- Gerund (gerúndio): equivalent to English “doing”.
- Personal infinitive (infinitivo pessoal): “(for me) to do”, an infinitive which inflects according to its subject; a rare feature that Portuguese shares with Galician.
The moods are used roughly as follows:
- Indicative (indicativo): for factual statements or positive beliefs. Example of an English equivalent: “I have done”.
- Subjunctive (subjuntivo, or conjuntivo): mostly used when speaking of unreal, uncertain, or unassumed conditions: “Were I to do”.
- Imperative (imperativo): for direct commands or requests; equivalent to the English “Do!”
Prepositions in Portuguese can be simple or compound. Simple prepositions consist of a single word, while compound prepositions are formed by a phrase.
Here are a few examples of common Portuguese prepositions: com, desde, por, sobre, a, em cima de, acerca de, para com.
Several prepositions form contractions with the definite article: do, pelo, ao, no.
This is a very brief overview of Portuguese grammar. To truly master it, you will need to study each of the parts of speech in much more detail. However, this overview will hopefully give you a general idea of the Portuguese grammatical system and of the main points you should consider when learning.