It’s often the case that, the simpler a word seems, the more difficult it is to define and explain. In the case of Portuguese pronouns, a full explanation of all the associated grammatical rules associated would be extremely long, as they inflect in numerous ways. The best way of learning how to use Portuguese pronouns, rather than trying to learn all the abstract rules, is to see how they operate within sentences while learning Portuguese with a tutor. That way, you’ll gain an instinctive sense of how to use Portuguese pronouns, inflecting them and pairing them with the right verb conjugations instinctively.
In this post, then, we’ll stick to the basic Portuguese pronouns. As well as dividing them into 1st and 2nd person and singular and plural categories, we’ll also categorize the pronouns into three basic forms: subject (when the pronoun is the subject of a verb), object (when the pronoun is the object of a verb) and prepositional (when the pronoun is the object of a preposition).
Subject: Eu (English: I)
Object: Me (English: me)
Prepositional: Mim (English: me)
Subject: Nós (English: we)
Object: Nos (English: us)
Prepositional: Nós (English: us)
As you can see, there are some differences here between the English and Portuguese pronouns. For the singular first person, the English word “me” can translate as either me or mim depending on the context. The English sentence “he gave me a present” translates as ele me deu um presente, whereas “the present is for me” translates as o presente é para mim.
In the case of the plural first person, “us” translates either as nós or nos depending on context, and in turn, nós can either translate as “we” or “us,” again depending on context. So, “we gave him a present” is nós demos-lhe um presente, “he gave us a present” is ele nos deu um presente, and “the present is for us” is o presente é para nós.”
Subject: Tu (English: you)
Object: Te (English: you)
Prepositional: Ti (English: you)
Subject: Vós (English: you)
Object: Vos (English: you)
Prepositional: Vós (English: you)
2nd person Portuguese pronouns can be a headache for English speakers to learn. Firstly, whereas in modern English we essentially just use “you” in all cases, using phrases like “you all” or “you guys” if we wish to emphasize that we are speaking in the plural, above there are five different forms to learn.
To make it worse, that’s not even the whole story! Vós, like its true English counterpart “ye,” is an antiquated word, and is only commonly used in parts of northern Portugal and is almost never heard in Brazil. Meanwhile, the word você (English: you), a relatively recent addition to the Portuguese language, is commonly used, but almost never appears on grammar tables. In its grammatical behavior, você resembles a third person pronoun: for example, it is associated with the same the verb conjugations as ele and ela. It also has a plural form, vocês, which is much more common than vós.
Choosing which “you” word to use can be difficult. Generally, in Portugal, tu is considered informal and você considered more formal, whereas in Brazil você is used most of the time, except in some Northern and Southern areas where tu is more common and frequently used in a grammatically abnormal way. The best way of getting to grips with this area, which can be a minefield, is to be aware of what kind of Portuguese you’re learning, and work on it with a tutor who can help you with all the subtleties.
Subject: Ele/ela (English: he/she/it)
Object: O/a/lhe/se (English: him/her/it)
Prepositional: Ele/ela/si (English: him/her/it)
Subject: Eles/elas (English: they)
Object: Os/as/lhes/se (English: them)
Prepositional: Eles/elas/si (English: them)
As you can see, in Portuguese, the object and prepositional forms of third-person pronouns are considerably more complex than in English, because there are direct, indirect, reflexive and reciprocal forms. For a sense of how this works in practice, see the examples below:
I hugged him.
Eu o abraçei.
I built it myself.
Eu a construí sozinho.
I gave her a present.
Eu dei-lhe um presente.
Sit down, please.
Senta-se/sentam-se, por favor. (singular/plural)
He knows what’s good for him.
Ele sabe que é bom para si mesmo.
They know what’s good for them.
Eles sabem que é bom para si mesmos.
There’s Much More to Learn
This short post is just scratching the surface of the complex subject of Portuguese pronouns. There are many pronouns not mentioned here, and subtleties of usage that haven’t been covered. The best way of becoming a confident user of Portuguese pronouns is to work on them with a tutor, putting them into context within sentences and phrases until you instinctively know which one to use. With practice, you’ll get the hang of it sooner than you think.