Understanding Basic Portuguese Grammar

Grammar. Remember that word from high school? Figuring out how to categorize types of words and understanding where they go in a sentence is like putting together a puzzle. And here's some good news: Portuguese and English use only several pieces, and they're the same. Each piece refers to a category of word that's used to put together the sentence — the parts of speech.

Agreeing with nouns and adjectives

Like in English, nouns are one of the main parts of Portuguese speech — the most important pieces of the puzzle. They're used to name people, places, and things, like casa (kah-zah; house), amigo (ah-mee-goo; friend), Maria (mah-dee-ah; the name of a woman), caneta (kah-neh-tah; pen), and Brasil (bdah-zee-ooh; Brazil).

Portuguese nouns come in two types: masculine and feminine. Masculine nouns usually end in an -o, and feminine nouns usually end in an -a. If a noun ends in a different letter, you can look up the word's gender in a Portuguese-English dictionary. At first, imagining that a door, a key, a chair and other "things" can be masculine or feminine can be very weird.

Keep the gender of the thing you're talking about in mind: In Portuguese, every time you describe the noun with an adjective — like bonita (boo-nee-tah; pretty), simpático (seem-pah-chee-koo; nice), or grande (gdahn-jee; big) — you change the end of the adjective to make it either masculine or feminine. The adjective's gender should match the gender of the noun. Like nouns, masculine adjectives normally end in -o, and feminine adjectives end in -a.

Another little trick: In Portuguese, the adjective normally comes after the noun. This word order is the opposite of what it is in English, in which people first say the adjective and then the noun (red dress; beautiful sunset). It's one of the few differences in word order between Portuguese and English.

Here's how the nouns and adjectives get paired off. In the first couple examples, notice how the ending of lindo (leen-doo; good-looking) changes, depending on the gender of the noun it follows:

  • homem lindo (oh-mang leen-doo; good-looking/handsome man)
  • mulher linda (mool-yeh leen-dah; good-looking/beautiful woman)
  • quarto limpo (kwah-too leem-poo; clean room)
  • casa suja (kah-zah soo-zhah; dirty house)
  • comida gostosa (koh-mee-dah goh-stoh-zah; delicious food)

Some adjectives are neutral and stay the same for both masculine and feminine nouns. These adjectives often end in -e rather than -o or -a. Adjectives in this group include inteligente (een-teh-lee-zhang-chee; intelligent) and grande (gdahn-jee; big).

Notice how the word inteligente stays the same, whether the noun is male or female:

  • Ela é muito inteligente. (eh-lah eh moh-ee-toh een-teh-lee-zhang-chee; She is very intelligent.)
  • Ele é muito inteligente. (eh-lee eh moh-ee-toh een-teh-lee-zhang-chee; He is very intelligent.)

If the noun is plural, just add an s to the end of the adjective: cachorros pequenos (kah-shoh-hooz peh-keh-nooz; small dogs).

Looking at some articles

Just like with Portuguese nouns and adjectives, the gender game is also at play when it comes to articles, the words like the, a, an, and some.

Now's the time to ooh and ah over grammar — o (ooh) means "the" for masculine nouns, and a (ah) means "the" for feminine nouns. In the following phrases, check out how the first and last letters match:

  • o homem lindo (ooh oh-mang leen-doo; the handsome man)
  • a mulher linda (ah mool-yeh leen-dah; the beautiful woman)
  • o quarto limpo (ooh kwah-too leem-poo; the clean room)
  • a casa suja (ah kah-zah soo-zhah; the dirty house)

Brazilians use the word the in front of nouns much more often than people do in English. When you'd say Books are fun, they'd say Os livros são divertidos (oohz leev-dooz sah-ooh jee-veh-chee-dooz; Literally: The books are fun). Brazil is big would be O Brasil é grande (ooh bdah-zee-ooh eh gdahn-jee; Literally: The Brazil is big).

Brazilians always use o or a before a person's name: A Mónica (ah moh-nee-kah), a Cláudia (ah klah-ooh-jee-ah), o Nicolas (ooh nee-koh-lahs), o Roberto (ooh hoh-beh-too). It's like saying the Steve, the Diane.

If a noun is plural, use os (ooz) if the noun's masculine and as (ahz) if it's feminine:

  • os barcos grandes (ooz bah-kooz gdahn-jeez; the big boats)
  • as flores amarelas (ahz floh-deez ah-mah-deh-lahz; the yellow flowers)

To say a, as in a hat or a table, say um (oong) for masculine nouns and uma (ooh-mah) for feminine nouns:

  • um banheiro (oong bahn-yay-doh; a bathroom)
  • uma pessoa (ooh-mah peh-soh-ah; a person)
  • um livro (oong leev-doh; a book)
  • uma mesa (ooh-mah meh-zah; a table)

To say some, use uns (oonz) if the noun's masculine or umas (ooh-mahz) if it's feminine:

  • uns sapatos (oonz sah-pah-tooz; some shoes)
  • umas garotas (ooh-mahz gah-doh-tahz; some girls)
  • umas praias (ooh-mahz pdah-ee-ahz; some beaches)

When you make the plural of a word ending in m, such as um, the m always changes to an n: Um homem (oong oh-mang; a man) becomes uns homens (oonz oh-mangz).

Introducing pronouns: You and I both

You use pronouns to refer to people when you don't say their names. Here's the way Brazilians do it:

  • eu (eh-ooh; I)
  • você (voh-seh; you)
  • ele (eh-lee; he/him)
  • ela (eh-lah; she/her)
  • nós (nohz; we/us)
  • eles (eh-leez; they/them — all males or males and females)
  • elas (eh-lahz; they/them — all females)

Brazilians don't have an equivalent of the English word it. Because "things" are either masculine or feminine in Portuguese, Brazilians refer to the thing or things as ele/ela/eles/elas when the thing isn't named. You don't hear this too often, because more often than not, Brazilians use the name of what they're talking about. But a mala (ah mah-lah; the suitcase) can become ela (Literally: she) if both speakers understand the context. Eu perdi ela (eh-ooh peh-jee eh-ah; I lost it) can mean I lost the suitcase.

If you're talking to a person who's a lot older than you (especially the elderly) or to an important person like a boss or a politician, instead of using você, use o senhor (ooh seen-yoh; Literally: the gentleman) or a senhora (ah seen-yoh-dah; Literally: the lady) to show respect.

Here are some sentences using pronouns:

  • Eu falo português. (eh-ooh fah-loh poh-too-gez; I speak Portuguese.)
  • Você escreve. (voh-seh ehs-kdeh-vee; You write.)
  • A senhora é brasileira? (ah seen-yoh-dah eh bdah-zee-lay-dah; Are you Brazilian? — to an older woman)
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