Demonstratives (demonstrativos) help to identify a particular person or object and establish its location in relation to the speaker, the listener, or simply within the general context. They can tell us, for example, whether something is close or distant in space or time.
In English, we generally use the words this and these to refer to things that are close to the speaker or things that are happening at the present time, and we use that or those to refer to objects that are further from the speaker or things that happened in the past. In Portuguese, you must also take into account the proximity to the listener and whether something happened in the recent or distant past. The Portuguese demonstratives are este(s), esta(s), esse(s), essa(s), aquele(s), aquela(s), isto, isso, and aquilo. This is just an overview, so don’t overwhelm yourself with memorizing all of these just yet. We’ll focus on one group at a time in the lessons to follow.
Pronouns vs. Determiners
You may recall what we learned in the Possessives unit about the difference between determiners and pronouns. Similarly, when demonstratives fully replace the noun and can be used on their own, we call them demonstrative pronouns (pronomes demonstrativos), and when they precede the noun to reference a defined item, we call them demonstrative determiners (determinantes demonstrativos). In Portuguese, the same words are used for both demonstrative determiners and demonstrative pronouns, except for isto, isso, and aquilo, which are only used as pronouns.
Quero este bolo. Este é meu. I want this cake. This is mine.
este = Demonstrative determiner Este = Demonstrative pronoun
Variable vs. Invariable
Some demonstratives can change according to the noun’s gender or number, while others always stay the same. With this in mind, we can split them in two groups:
Variable (variáveis) – These must agree with the noun’s gender and number and can either be followed by the noun it describes, or used on their own (if the noun was already referenced). The variable demonstratives are este(s), esta(s), esse(s), essa(s), aquele(s) and aquela(s).
Esta caneta é tua This pen is yours
Este menino é loiro, mas esta menina é morena. This boy is blond, but this girl is brunette.
Aquele cão é grande. Aqueles também. That dog is big. Those dogs too.
Invariable (invariáveis) – These are the less specific, more general demonstratives. They do not have gendered or plural forms. The invariable demonstratives are isto, isso, and aquilo.
Obrigado pelo presente. Isto é excelente! Thank you for the gift. This is excellent!
Ela viu o acidente. Aquilo foi horrível. She saw the accident. That was horrible.
- One situation when we use invariable pronouns is when we don’t know what the object is (and therefore don’t know if it’s masculine or feminine to assign one of the variable pronouns.).
- We also use them when we simply want to go straight to the point and shorten the sentence
Isto é teu? This is yours? instead of Este casaco é teu? This coat is yours?
- Although variable pronouns can also be used on their own without the noun, it’s usually when the object has been mentioned recently, making the context clear:
Este casaco é teu e este é meu; por isso, esse é dela This coat is yours inf. and this one is mine; therefore that one is hers
- Invariable pronouns are also used when talking about ideas or situations in a more abstract way.
Isto é inaceitável This is unacceptable
Close vs. Distant Objects
We can further split both variable and invariable demonstrative pronouns according to the relative position of the person/object at hand, both spatially and temporally.
Saying “this” in Portuguese
When it’s close to the speaker, or in the present time, we use este and its derivatives, as well as isto.
- este/esta (masc/fem)
- estes/estas (masc/fem) – both plural
Saying “that” in Portuguese
This is where it gets a bit tricky. In English, “that” could describe something fairly close to the person you’re speaking to, (“that pizza you’re holding”), or far away from both of you, (“that coffee shop we went to yesterday”)
However, in Portuguese, there are 2 groups of pronouns for describing “that”.
- When it’s close to the listener, or in a recent past or future, we use esse (variable) and its derivatives, as well as isso (invariable).
Esse cão é teu? That near 2nd person dog is yours?
Este vestido é mais barato. Isso é muito caro. This dress is cheaper. That near 2nd person is very expensive.
- When it’s away from both the speaker and the listener, or in a more distant past, we use aquele (variable) and its derivatives, as well as aquilo (invariable).
Aquela festa foi enorme. That far away party was huge.
Aquilo valeu a pena. That far away was worth it.