Portuguese prepositions, much like conjunctions, have meanings and uses that do not allow for direct, word-for-word translations to English. A Portuguese preposition can have several different English translations depending on context, which makes it difficult for English speakers to learn how to use them correctly. The surest way of mastering this complex subject is to learn with an expert tutor who can guide you through all the subtleties and help you avoid the pitfalls.
The good news is that, even if you make errors, it shouldn’t fundamentally compromise the intelligibility of what you’re saying. If you’re simply trying to communicate, you should be able to make yourself understood, even if you use the wrong preposition. In professional or formal situations, however, correct use of Portuguese prepositions is essential for a polished performance.
In this post, we’ll look at seven of the most common Portuguese prepositions and how they are normally used.
As well as being the feminine singular definite article, a is also one of the most commonly used Portuguese prepositions, usually meaning something like “to,” as in este carro pertence a você, meaning “this car belongs to you.” However, it is not directly equivalent to the English word “to” and can sometimes translate as “with,” “at,” or “by,” depending on the context in which it is used; also, it is not the only Portuguese preposition that translates as “to.”
Possibly the most common of all the Portuguese prepositions, de usually translates into English as “of” or “from.” It is more frequently used than those English words, because there are several verb usages that require prepositions in Portuguese but not in English. For instance, eu gosto de dançar would literally translate as “I like of to dance”; in English, we remove the preposition and use the gerund of the verb “to dance” rather than the infinitive: “I like dancing.”
Em usually means “in,” “inside,” “at,” or “on.” For example, eu estou em casa means “I am at home,” or more literally “I am in my house.” When em is combined with the definite or indefinite article, completely new words are formed (see below).
In the vast majority of cases, com translates as “with”; however, the usage is not always exactly the same as in English. For example, eu estou com dor de cabeça literally translates into English as “I am with headache,” which we would render as “I have a headache.”
Sem means “without.” For example, eu estou sem dinheiro translates literally as “I am without money,” or idiomatically as “I don’t have any money.”
Por usually translates as “for,” although depending on context it may also mean “by” or “per.” For example, eu fui de férias por uma semana means “I went on vacation for a week,” o treinamento é feito por especialistas means “the training is done by specialists,” and tomar um comprimido por dia means “take one pill per day.”
Para means “for” or “to.” As we have already seen, por also translates as “for,” and a also translates as “to,” so using these three pronouns correctly is particularly tricky for English speakers. This is the kind of issue that practicing with an expert tutor can really help you with. Essentially, para means “for” in the sense of being directed at or intended to belong to something, and “to” in the sense of “toward” or “in order to.” For example, este presente é para você means “this present is for you,” and ele está dirigindo para Belo Horizonte means “he is driving to Belo Horizonte.”
When they are used with the definite or indefinite article, some of the Portuguese prepositions above form compound words. These are listed below. Exactly what compound word is formed depends on whether the noun being referred to is masculine, feminine, singular, or plural, because Portuguese articles inflect for those qualities.
A: a + o(s) = ao(s); a + a(s) = à(s)
English: to/with/at/by the
De: de + o(s) = do(s); de + a(s) = da(s)
English: of/from the
Em: em + o(s) = no(s); em + a(s) = na(s)
English: in/at/on the
Por: por + o(s) = pelo(s); por + a(s) = pela(s)
English: for/by the
Em: em + um(a) = num(a)
English: in/at/on a(n)
Here are some examples of how to use these contractions in sentences.
Let’s go to the beach. Vamos à praia.
The hood of my car is rusty.
A capota do meu carro está enferrujada.
They’re at the beach right now.
Eles estão na praia agora.
It happened for the reasons I told you earlier.
Aconteceu pelas razões que lhe contei anteriormente.
I’m in a meeting right now.
Estou numa reunião agora.
Don’t End a Sentence with a Preposition!This famous old trope of grammatical pedants is a rule from Latin grammar that was applied to English for many years. It is arguably unsuitable for modern English; these days, sentences ending with prepositions are relatively common and generally accepted. Portuguese prepositions, however, are another matter—because it’s a Romance language, with a grammatical system closely derived from Latin, the rule is applied. Sentences ending with prepositions are never acceptable in Portuguese.
Take the Next Step
There’s a lot more to learn about Portuguese prepositions. There are various subtleties of usage to the seven prepositions above to get to grips with and many more prepositions to memorize. To tackle this complex subject, your best bet is to learn with a tutor. Our specialist tutors are available now to create a lesson plan tailored to your needs.