Invariable Demonstrative Pronouns

In the previous lessons of this unit, you learned about variable demonstratives, which change depending on the gender and number of the objects(s) they describe.
Here’s some good news for you: Invariable demonstrative pronouns (pronomes demonstrativos invariáveis) are much easier to learn, because as you can see below, there are only 3 of them. They do still tell you the position of the object(s), but not the number or gender.

Relative Position Invariable Demonstrative Pronoun English Equivalent
Near the speaker: isto this
Near the listener: isso that
Away from both: aquilo that

Even though these pronouns also translate to this and that in English, their meaning and usage is slightly different.
You can think of these invariable pronouns as being more impersonal than their variable counterparts.

How Do You Know When to Use Invariable vs. Variable?

Although we’re usually told to avoid thinking in English, here’s a trick:
If you’re in a situation where in English, you would be required to mention the noun or replace it with the word “one”, for example, “this flavour” or “that one“, instead of just “this” or “that”, then you should use a variable demonstrative in Portuguese. (In these cases, you likely already know what the object is, so you are able to show it the respect it deserves by recognizing its gender and quantity! 🙃).
On the other hand, if adding “one” to the sentence or mentioning the noun itself would sound awkward, then you should use an invariable pronoun instead.
Furthermore, if you can refer to the object(s) as simply this or that alone, then an invariable pronoun will probably sound right.

Can’t I Just Be Lazy and Always Use Invariable?

This can be tempting, especially if you don’t already speak another language that also likes to assign genders to objects. It seems like it would be less mental effort, right? When learning a language, we all find ways to cheat a little bit, especially early on.
But if your goal is to get your Portuguese sounding as native as possible, using invariable pronouns all the time can almost make it sound like you’re trying to detach or distance yourself from the object.
Plus, using the variable type when possible is helpful, because they do a better job of clarifying what it is that we’re referring to.

What Sets Invariable Pronouns Apart?

  • Remember above when we mentioned that these pronouns should be thought of as impersonal? Building on this idea, you should never use them to refer to people.
  • Invariable pronouns can be used to talk about thoughts or situations in more abstract terms:
    Isto é muito estranho. This is very strange.
    Isso é fascinante! That is fascinating!
  • We would also use an invariable pronoun in situations where we are exposed to something unknown. Since you don’t know what it is, you can’t really assign a gender and quantity. In these situations, it makes more sense to use an invariable pronoun.
    O que é aquilo? What is that far away?

Sometimes, Either Option Will Work

Like variable pronouns, invariable pronouns can also be used to replace a recently mentioned or otherwise well identified object, (for example, by pointing directly to it):
Esta máquina parece complexa. Como é que isto funciona? This machine seems complex. How does this work?
This is an example of when invariable pronouns can be interchangeable with variable pronouns.

Overwhelmed?

This can all be very daunting to get a handle on, since it seems like a lot to remember. But as long as you have a general idea of some of these guidelines, then you’ll notice them more and more in daily conversation and be able to follow the lead of native European Portuguese speakers.
Boa sorte com isto!
 

Comments:

  • This whole section is the first time I’ve started to feel scared! But I love the clear way you explain it all, not to mention the friendly reassurance!

  • Esta máquina parece complexa. Como é que isto funciona?

    Is it possible to replace isto with ela? e.g. Como é que ela funciona?

    Thanks

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