Demonstrativos Demonstratives 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 learning note will serve as 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 pronomes demonstrativos demonstrative pronouns and when they precede the noun to reference a defined item, we call them determinantes demonstrativos demonstrative determiners.
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.
In the example below, the first este is a demonstrative determiner and the second Este is a demonstrative pronoun.
Quero este bolo. Este é meu. I want this cake. This is mine.
Variable vs. Invariable
Some Portuguese 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:
These must agree with the noun’s gender and number and are usually followed by the noun. 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.
Although variable pronouns can also be used on their own without the noun, it’s usually only when the object has been mentioned recently, making the context clear:
Aquele cão é grande. Aqueles também. That dog is big. Those dogs too.
Este casaco é teu e este é meu; por isso, esse é dela This coat is yours and this one is mine; therefore that one is hers
These are the less specific, more general Portuguese demonstratives, which do not have gendered or plural forms. The invariable demonstratives are isto, isso, and aquilo. We use them:
- 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)
- 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?
- When talking about ideas or situations in a more abstract way
Isto é inaceitável This is unacceptable
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.
Close vs. Distant Objects
We can further split both variable and invariable demonstrative pronouns according to the relative position of the person/object, both spatially and temporally.
Saying “this” in Portuguese
When something is close to the speaker, or in the present time, we use isto and este (plus its derivatives).
- Variable forms: este/esta (singular masc/fem), estes/estas (plural masc/fem)
- Invariable form: isto
Saying “that” in Portuguese
Now 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 something far away from both of you, (“that coffee shop we went to yesterday”).
However, with Portuguese demonstratives, 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 isso and esse (plus its derivatives).
Esse cão é teu? That near listener dog is yours?
Este vestido é mais barato. Isso é muito caro. This dress is cheaper. That near listener is very expensive.
- When it’s away from both the speaker and the listener, or in a more distant past, we use aquilo and aquele (plus its derivatives).
Aquela festa foi enorme. That far away party was huge.
Aquilo valeu a pena. That far away was worth it.