Introduction to Portuguese Demonstratives

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:

Variable

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

Invariable

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
Este livro é ótimo. Vou lê-lo esta semana. This book is great. I will read it this week.

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.

Comments:

  • I know it’s a bit nit-picky, but girls are blonde. Boys are blond. (I’ve double-checked this first with Chambers and the Oxford English dictionaries.)

    I’m glad I stumbled across this site, though. I’m loving this, and feel that I am at least making progress!

  • In the Pimsleur series, aquele was described as being used for people, rather than esse. Is that not the case, can you use esse when referring to people?

    • Yes, both words can be used for people. The choice between ‘aquele’ and ‘esse’ depends only on the relative temporal or physical distance. ‘Esse’ is for people or things far from the speaker, but closer to the listener; ‘aquele’ is for people or things far from both the speaker and the listener.

  • I’m still not clear on how isso is used. My first thought with the example above, “Esta vestido e mais barato” “Isso e muito caro”, isso is used because that one sentence does not have a feminine or masculine subject. But you know this response is referencing the dress, so why not use ‘esse’?
    The same question applies to the use of ‘aquilo’.
    Thank you

    • Olá, Paul. More often that not, it’s not an either/or thing – when context allows for it, you can phrase your thoughts in different ways, all of them grammatically correct. You just gave a good example in your comment 🙂 It actually agrees with what the Learning Note says about using “isto”, “isso”, “aquilo” when we don’t know what the object is or what we’re talking about. If we do know, then we don’t need them.

  • Why is “Esse cão é teu” allowed rather than “Esse cão é o teu” since we have a possessive pronoun (mine, yours, hers) not a possessive adjective (my, your, her)? I thought possessive adjectives have optional articles but possessive pronouns required them

    • Both are possible, but the definite article isn’t mandatory here 🙂 There’s a subtle difference in meaning/intention:
      – Esse cão é teu -> This sentence simply explains that the dog is yours.
      – Esse cão é o teu -> With the definite article, it feels like you’re adding emphasis to the fact that this is your dog, not any other dog.

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