Definite Articles in Portuguese

How to Say “The” in Portuguese

In English, we only have 1 definite article: the, which is used to refer to a specific instance of an object, as opposed to referring to objects more generally using the indefinite articles a or an.
In Portuguese, we have 4 artigos definidos definite articles that serve the same function as the: o the a the os the as the
Why 4 different words with one meaning? In Portuguese, many words take on different forms, depending on the following two properties:

  • Gender: The masculine forms of “the” are o and os. The feminine forms are a and as.
  • Number: A singular object is referred to with o or a, whereas plurals use os or as.

Here are some examples:

  • Masculine, singular: o carro the car
  • Feminine, singular: a mesa the table
  • Masculine, plural: os carros the cars
  • Feminine, plural: as mesas the tables

When to Use Definite Articles

Similar to how we use “the” in English, Portuguese definite articles also appear before a noun.
O ladrão foi apanhado em flagrante. The thief was caught red-handed.
There are also additional situations in which definite articles are used in Portuguese, but not in English:

  • Before proper nouns:
    Eu sou a Ana I am Ana
  • Before the name of a city/region, when its name derives from a common noun:

O Porto Porto means a dock

A Régua Régua means ruler

Os Açores Açor is a type of hawk.

Lisboa Lisbon - Lisboa does not derive from a common noun

The Exceptions: When Not to Use Definite Articles

  • When using the vocative case, such as in greetings:
Olá Ana! Hi Ana!
  • When listing multiple items

Preciso de comprar: leite, cereais, peixe I need to buy: milk, cereal, fish

  • When naming planets or stars
Eu vejo Júpiter I see Jupiter

Masculine & Feminine

In Portuguese, almost every noun (person, place, or thing) is either masculine or feminine. Masculine nouns go with the definite articles o and os, while feminine nouns go with the definite articles a and as. If you’ve never studied a Romance language before, this may seem strange at first. After all, in English we usually only assign gender to people or living things, right?
Here are two examples of what we mean by grammatical gender:
A ponte é estreita. The bridge is narrow.
O gato é preto. The cat is black.
In this case, ‘the bridge’ is feminine (‘a ponte’), while the cat is masculine (‘o gato’). Sound strange? Well, believe it or not, Old English used to use grammatical gender in a similar way, but it fell out of use over time!
Gendered words remain a fact of life for Portuguese speakers. But as a learner, how are you supposed to know whether a word is masculine or feminine, other than simply memorizing them all?
To get started, here is the most basic rule:

  • Most words that end in “a“, are feminine. Example: a mesa
  • Most words ending in “o” are masculine. Example: o carro

However, you’ll soon find out that there are words that break this rule, and many that end in a letter other than “a” or “o”.

Comments:

  • Good explanation. I like hearing the examples. It may be a little helpful for the beginning student to heave longer examples done a bit more slowly as well as in normal cadence in order to learn the proper pronunciation of each of the words in the phrase or sentence. Thanks so much! 🙂

  • Thanks for having Rui speak the Portuguese. He is easy to understand and makes for consistency in the hearing and learning.

  • Great start for me so far. My only feedback is to use more realistic sentences in the examples. For example, I can’t imagine talking about hawks anytime soon. Maybe something more commonplace could be used?

    • Haha, I agree that talking about actual hawks/hawk-like birds probably doesn’t happen often! What you might not know is that Portugal has some beautiful islands called Açores (or Azores, in English), named after that bird 🙂 That is why that particular example of use of definite articles is under point 2), “2) Before the name of a city/region, when its name derives from a common noun”.

  • I seems to me that the vowel sound of the feminine singular in “a mesa” is different than the vowel sound of the feminine singular in “A ponte é estreita.” Does the sound of the feminine article vary slightly between nouns?

    • Hey, Christopher. Actually, the vowel sound in the definite articles ‘a’ and ‘as’ is always the same 🙂

  • Thanks Joseph for confirming that. I listened again and this time they did sound the same to me. However, I now notice a difference in the audio examples between “os” when used with os carros (I hear ossh carros) and Os Açores (I hear Oss Açores, no SH). Am a crazy?

  • I like the way this is going!
    I have a mental block with leading Portuguese since i did not like the sound of it!
    But this is not too bad!

  • An engaging lesson. It is good to read the background to the conventions of the language as well as to practise the language itself.

  • Having this as a basic is very good. After learning some vocabulary elsewhere, and trying to string some phrases and short sentences or questions together, I now realise that the basics around the definite article have been missing and would have been really helpful. D’oh!

    • No, Daniel, gato has a different form for each gender, fortunately 🙂
      The male cat = O gato.
      The female cat = A gata.
      The cat had kittens yesterday = A gata teve gatinhos ontem. (Gatinhos is masculine because we default to the masculine gender for groups, unless we know for sure that the group only has female elements)

  • I’m starting to learn Portuguese and having you pronouncing all words and sentences slowly is a big help on my journey ;-; thank you so much for the lesson, gonna continue on more!

  • The tortoise is my saviour. I’m “not young” with slight hearing problems and I’ve found making sense when the speaker seems to miss vowels quite difficult to understand (as I have found in Portugal). The tortoise gives me the opportunity to build up speed and to appreciate how/why it appears that some vowels are missed out.

    Makes me look forward to what is to come and the use I’ll make of my 12 weeks of isolation due to Covid 19!!

  • Good start for me. Nothing too difficult for a beginner who understands very basic Portuguese! And importantly quite enjoyable!

  • I, too, am trying to use isolation to be more diligent in my lessons. As well-designed as your lessons are, In a few months I did not get anywhere close to fluent and I am sure that my pronunciation was atrocious when I visited Portugal in January, as big 70th birthday present to ourselves para meu marido and me. However, it was a wonderful trip and I am even more interested in cementing the basics into my brain for next trip to Terceira in Açores (where my grandmother was born). Now you have cleared up a mystery for me. When I visited a park in Portugal with Açores in its name, I wondered if this was the region in Portugal where the earliest inhabitants of the Azores originated. Haha! I will do my own research but I will start by guessing that the islands had hawks when they were discovered. Now my question regarding grammar, based on what I learned above, shouldn’t we call the islands Os Açores? Like Oporto.

  • Olá Sharon and thank you for your comment! Yes, it’s believed that the name was inspired in all the birds that the Portuguese settlers saw when they arrived to the island. It’s not the only theory, but it’s the main one. The name of the islands is just Açores, just like the name of the city is just Porto. But when they’re used in sentences, we do use the definite article before them 🙂 E.g. “Os Açores são um arquipélago” or “O Porto é uma cidade”. Any proper names that derive from common names generally require a definite article when mentioned.

  • Just joined Practice Portuguese and, though I speak some Portuguese, thought I’d start from the beginning. Surprised to learn things I didn’t know even in the first two lessons, which is great. I’m thinking I’ll continue through in order and also experiment with some of the listening sessions. Is there an order of progression in these or should I just dip in at random?

    • That’s great! Sometimes it’s really helpful to go back through the basics, even if you’re more advanced. Since the information is no longer new, it frees up your brain to pick up on the details!

      Some of the listening practice (Shorties) will appear at the end of the Units, but otherwise, there is no set progression. We do have them tagged by difficulty, so if you wanted, you could start with Beginner, then Easier, then Medium, then Advanced. But sometimes I think it’s more motivating to just skip around to the topics that interest you. So the choice is yours!

  • Thanks, Molly. I’ll continue with the beginner stuff to refresh and pick what’s new to me, and dip into the units as I feel. Looking forward to making some progress.

  • I am writing a novel. One character’s first language is Portuguese. She says to a male character, “You are marvelous.” There are feminine and masculine words for marvelous. Which should I use?
    Thank you, very much, for your help.

    • Adjectives always take on the gender of the person/object that they’re qualifying. So, for a male character, you should use masculine forms (e.g. maravilhoso). Good luck with your novel!

  • Joseph,
    Thank you very much for your reply! I really appreciate it, even though it means some editing. 😉
    Ben

  • So far grammar has not been a problem because I am from Spain and we have gender and apply similar rules to the use of artigos definidos. We also have quite a lot of vocabulary in common, but when it comes to pronunciation European Portuguese is complex. Being able to repeat whole sentences that are also a good example of your simple grammatical explanations is most useful. Thank you!

    • Olá, Maria. Your message is in line with what I hear/read from other Spanish speakers: grammar and written language is fine, but then a Portuguese person speaks fast and everything goes out the window 🙂 I hope Practice Portuguese’s resources continue to help you with that!

  • Thanks for the lesson. I have a question with the phrase “Eu sou a Ana”. If the name is a male name is it “Eu sou o John” or is it always “a”?

  • So far, so good – only signed up just now ! But I have used Duolingo for a year…I hadnt realised I was learing Brazilian Portuguese – Doh
    p.s. Im a slow learner !

  • I noticed in the definitives, “as” was pronounced differently when presented alone compared to when it was the first word in the sentence that followed.

    • That’s right! This is not exclusive to the word “as”, it’s a feature of the letter S, which can sound differently when followed by other letters. In normal speech, an ending S followed by a vowel or H sounds more like a Z, and when followed by another consonant, it sounds more like a zh. This Learning Note talks about that and goes through some examples: The Letters S and C

  • There’s a lot to learn, but I’m making frequent use of the Tortoise, and I’m sure I will make progress. I like the idea of presenting some of the basic rules first — it’s grounding.

  • Very good and so convenient compared to listening and rewinding DVDS. Would it be possible to have a facility to reverse things?.

    So, after you speak the Portuguese and observe the English translation below, you could show the English in bold and hide the translation below until you click on it. This way you would be forced to learn the vocabulary.

    • Good idea! We don’t have a simple way to include this in the learning notes, but you will get to practice switching between Portuguese to English and English to Portuguese in the lesson exercises that follow.

      I think what you’re suggesting is somewhat similar to how our Smart Review flash cards work (under the Learn tab in the top menu bar). Using the phrases you learn in the lesson exercises, it shows you the English and you translate to Portuguese without help. Then you click to flip the card and see the Portuguese to check yourself.

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