Clitic Pronouns: Direct & Indirect Objects

Pronomes clíticos paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Clitic pronouns are one of the trickiest subjects to learn and master in Portuguese. But don’t despair — we’re here to help! Throughout these lessons you’ll learn how to use clitic object pronouns correctly, but first you should understand more about the difference between direct and indirect objects.
The objects of a sentence can be represented in various ways, the most common being nouns and pronouns. Some verbs don’t need objects for the sentence to make sense, while others demand them. These are called transitive verbs.
For example, take the English phrase “She wants”. That sounds incomplete, right? In English, want is a transitive verb, so you need more information. What does she want? “She wants that car.” Now it’s a complete sentence, with “that car” as the direct object.

Direct Objects

A complemento direto paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio direct object answers the questions what? or who?, and therefore shows a direct connection with the main verb, complementing it.
Let’s look at a few examples in Portuguese:
Ela chamou a mãe. Ela chamou-a. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio She called her mom. She called her.
Eles vestiram as t-shirts. Eles vestiram-nas. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio They put the t-shirts on. They put them on.
As you can see, in the first example, the verb chamar paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio to call was performed directly to the mom, so a mãe paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio the mom is the direct object of the sentence. She called whom? The mom. Since mom is a female direct object, you replace it with the clitic pronoun a.
The same goes for the second sentence: They put on what? The t-shirts. So the t-shirts are the direct object. Because this is the plural of a female direct object, you would think it would be replaced by the clitic pronoun as, but since the verb vestiram ends in -am, you have to use nas. (This is a rule that makes the word easier to pronounce. You will learn more about this inflected form in this lesson.)

Indirect Objects

We also have complementos indiretos paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio indirect objects, which are objects that are connected to the main verb by a preposition, such as a paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio to. You can locate the indirect object by asking a question like to whom?, from whom?, or for whom? because the person (or object) is indirectly affected by the main verb. Let’s take a look at some examples:
Ele roubou as bolachas à amiga. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio He stole the cookies from his friend.
What did he steal? The cookies. That’s the direct object. From whom? From his friend. That’s the indirect object. Notice the preposition à making the connection.
Ele roubou-lhe as bolachas. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio He stole the cookies from her.
The questions have the same answer but now the indirect object is represented by the clitic pronoun lhe. (Keep in mind that when you use a clitic pronoun as an indirect object, it is never preceded by a preposition.)

Word Order

Sentences can have indirect objects without direct objects, and vice-versa, and they can also have both, as seen in the example above. If both are present, and no clitic pronouns are involved, there’s no particular order in which they should appear. The sentence Dei um casaco à minha mãe. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I gave a jacket to my mom. has the same meaning as Dei à minha mãe um casaco. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I gave my mom a jacket.. The order starts to matter when you use clitic pronouns, however.
Ela deu-lhes um presente ontem. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio She gave them a gift yesterday.
This is how this sentence would normally appear, with the verb first (deu), followed by the indirect object pronoun (lhes), followed by the direct object (um presente).
You could re-write that sentence differently, placing the pronoun before the verb (with ontem/yesterday removed). The examples below are technically correct and make sense, but are not common in European Portuguese. The first one is either used in poetry or when you want to sound like Yoda, from Star Wars, while the second is commonly found in Brazilian Portuguese.
Um presente ela lhes deu. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio A gift she gave them.
Ela lhes deu um presente. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio She gave them a gift.

The Bottom Line on Word Order

The common practice is to place an indirect object (represented by clitic pronouns) before the direct object.
If the sentence is in question form or negative form, however, then the pronoun precedes the verb.
Ela não lhes deu um presente. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio She didn't give them a gift.

Comments

  • Beautifully explained but this section is the most difficult I have tackled, I got lesson 1 (following) 100% through blood sweat and tears! LOL
    Pat

  • Esta lição esclarece o mistério dos complementos diretos e indiretos e a ordem também – muito obrigada! Sou uma nova aluna em PracticePortuguese.com e adoro os podcasts e as lições . Aprendi o português com varios recursos mas agora encontrei o melhor! Gosto das lições tão organizadas e sei que vou aprender muito muito mais agora! De novo, muito obrigada, Rui e Joel!!
    Beijinhos,
    Lorena

    • Olá, Lorena! Muito obrigado pela mensagem e parabéns, porque está escrita em português perfeito. Espero que continues a desfrutar dos materiais do website 🙂

  • How would you use direct and indirect object pronouns together? Like in the spanish “damelo” for “give it to me”
    Or how could you say “They offered me it”
    Obrigado!

  • Another question!
    What are the other circumstances in which the clitic precedes the verb besides the negative form? I know this also happens with ainda, like in “Eles ainda o tem”

    • Olá 🙂 Yes, some adverbs, like “ainda”, have a certain attractive power and pull the pronoun to the proclitic position (before the verb). Same for subordinative conjunctions, relative pronouns like “que”, or indefinite pronouns like “alguém”. Examples:
      – Talvez eu te possa ajudar (Maybe I can help you) -> Adverb
      – Podes ver televisão se te portares bem (You can watch TV if you behave well) -> Subordinative conjunction
      – Obrigado pelo presente que vocês nos deram (Thank you for the gift that you gave us) -> Relative pronoun
      – Alguém me chamou (Someone called me) -> Indefinite pronoun

  • Hi ! I get confused when reading the example above: “Ele roubou as bolachas à amiga.” It sounds like he stole the cookies to the friend instead of from the friend. To me it would be more natural to say: “Ele robou as bolachas da amiga”. How should one think about this? Is the, to me odd, choice of preposition somehow connected to function of the verb? Please help.

    • Both prepositions are possible (“roubar a” and “roubar de”), but the former is the usually preferred one in European Portuguese, while the latter is more typical of Brazilian Portuguese. Either way, both options mean “to steal from someone” 🙂

  • Ele roubou as bolachas à amiga.
    He stole the cookies from his friend.

    Dei um casaco à minha mãe.
    I gave a jacket to my mom.

    How can it be that the à in these two sentences has opposite meanings: to/from?

    Shouldn’t the first sentence be da amiga?

    • Olá, Whit. For Portuguese speakers, this all seems perfectly coherent, but when you translate prepositions to English, they can fly in any direction 🙂 “Roubar da amiga” would also be possibl and some people say it like that, but it’s more typical of Brazilian Portuguese. In Portugal, we usually prefer “roubar a”.

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