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Portuguese Pronouns: When Do You Drop Them, and Why?


In Portuguese, pronouns aren’t always directly articulated like they are in English. Instead, the pronoun is dropped from the sentence, which retains the conjugated verb. The rules and norms of how and when to do this aren’t immediately obvious, so in this post we explore some of the whys and wherefores of this practice. If you really want to understand the subject, though, you’d be well advised to work with one of our tutors.


Why Do You Drop Pronouns?

Dropping pronouns is something of an alien concept to many native English speakers, because the conjugated forms of English verbs aren’t pronoun-specific. For instance, take the sentence below.


I don’t want to go.


In English grammar, the verb “don’t” can be preceded by the pronouns “I,” “you,” “we,” or “they,” so if you tried to remove it from the sentence, there’d be no way of knowing which pronoun was meant. It simply doesn’t make any sense to remove the pronoun from the sentence, because doing so renders it incomplete. You’d be removing a key piece of information.


Portuguese verbs are different. They have many more conjugated forms than English ones, most of which are specific to particular Portuguese pronouns and tenses. This means that you can often tell which pronoun belongs with a verb just by looking at it. For instance, let’s have a look at the Portuguese translation of our sentence from above.


I don’t want to go.

Eu não quero ir.


The verb quero is a conjugated form of querer, “to want,” which is specific to the pronoun eu (which means “I”), in the present tense. You’ll only ever find quero with eu; it doesn’t fit with any other Portuguese pronouns. This means that, in the sentence above, you don’t really need to articulate eu, because it doesn’t add anything to the sentence. The translation of “I don’t want to go” could be as shown below.


I don’t want to go.

Não quero ir.


All the information from the first example is retained: it’s perfectly clear from the use of the verb quero that the sentence is in the first person singular, and in the simple present tense.


When Do You Drop Pronouns?

It’s important to bear in mind that you can’t drop Portuguese pronouns all the time. There are two main factors to pay attention to when you’re deciding whether or not to articulate a pronoun: ambiguity, and which type of Portuguese you’re speaking. We look at both of these factors in more detail below.


Ambiguity

Portuguese conjugated verb forms are not always unique to a specific Portuguese pronoun. In some tenses, the same verb form applies to more than one pronoun—for instance, in the past imperfect tense, the conjugated forms for the first and third person singular are the same, as shown below.


I was walking.

Eu estava andando.


She was walking.

Ela estava andando.


So, if you’re using estava, you need to take care when dropping the pronoun. It might be clear from context what the pronoun is, in which case it’s fine to do so, but if it’s not clear, it’s best to articulate the pronoun.


A good rule of thumb is that the first person Portuguese pronouns eu and nós (“I” and “we”) have more unique verb forms, so you’re more likely to drop these than other pronouns. Nós, in particular, always has its own distinctive verb forms. This is also sometimes true for the second person pronouns tu (except in certain areas of Brazil) and vós (which is rarely used). For other pronouns, it’s quite complicated and dependent on a variety of factors.


Brazilian vs. European Portuguese

There are a number of differences in the role of pronouns between European and Brazilian Portuguese, and the issue of pronoun dropping is one of these. Generally speaking, pronoun dropping is significantly more common in European Portuguese than it is in Brazilian. This is down to a number of factors, but a significant one is the Portuguese pronoun você, which is much more commonly used in Brazil than it is in Portugal. Você doesn’t have its own conjugations, instead using third person verb forms. This causes ambiguity, so when it comes to the second and third person, dropping pronouns is relatively uncommon in Brazil.


There are also differences between European and Brazilian Portuguese for the first person. In European Portuguese, more often than not, first person pronouns are dropped. In Brazilian, there are variations in usage between the vast country’s disparate regions, but first person pronouns are articulated as least as often as they are dropped.


As you can see, pronoun dropping is more of an issue in European Portuguese than it is in Brazilian. Wherever you are, though, if there’s any doubt, err on the side of clarity and use the pronoun. That way, people will at least understand what you’re saying, even if it doesn’t sound colloquial.


Practice with a Tutor

Dropping Portuguese pronouns is one of those areas of the language where, instead of hard and fast rules, there is a set of norms that differ depending on where you are in the Portuguese-speaking world. The best way of approaching the subject is to get professional assistance. Book a lesson with our tutors for expert coaching on this and many other areas of Portuguese grammar.

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