Variable demonstratives (demonstrativos variáveis) are used to identify all of the following at once:
- a person or object’s gender
- the number (one or more)
- their position in space or time
The “demonstrative” part of this fancy pronoun’s name, refers to the last point above; the item’s position. We must choose which demonstrative to use, according to which one of the following fits best:
a) The object is near the speaker
b) The object is far from the speaker, but close to the listener
c) Far away from both of you
As you may have realized, this doesn’t happen in English: We just have to choose between this and that. That’s it! In English, the position of the object relative to the speaker is the only one that counts. In Portuguese, we have to choose which “that” to use according to where the object is in relation to the listener.
This lesson will cover singular variable demonstratives, all of which you can see below:
|Relative Position||Masculine||Feminine||English Equivalent|
|Near the speaker:||este||esta||this|
|Near the listener:||esse||essa||that|
|Far from both:||aquele||aquela||that|
This (Near the Speaker)
Este and esta are used when we want to refer to someone or something that is close to us, exactly like how we would use this in English. For example, if we were shopping and we noticed a beautiful watch next to us, we would say:
Este relógio é bom. This watch is good.
Since relógio is a masculine noun, we use the masculine form: este.
If, instead of a watch, we were looking at a pricey t-shirt, we would use the feminine form: esta, because t-shirt is a feminine word in Portuguese:
Esta t-shirt é cara. This t-shirt is expensive.
That (Near the Listener)
If your shopping partner were to make a comment about the t-shirt or watch, they wouldn’t use esta or este, because the objects are far from them. However, since you, as the listener, are close to them, they can use the pronouns esse or essa. They could reply with something like:
Quanto custa essa t-shirt? How much does that t-shirt near you cost?
That (Far Away)
On the other hand, if either one of you wants to mention someone or something that is far away from both of you, the right pronouns to use would be aquele or aquela.
Viste aquela rapariga linda? Did you see that far away beautiful girl?
European vs. Brazilian Portuguese
In the above examples, you can see that while both esse/essa and aquele/aquela translate to that in English, they are used in distinct situations. The case is different with Brazilian Portuguese, where esse/essa have come to mean the same as este/esta, both corresponding to the English this. So, their choice of demonstrative pronouns boils down to esse/essa (this) and aquele/aquela (that).
Replacing the Noun
Variable demonstratives can be followed by the respective noun, like in the previous examples. However, once context is established, these same words can also be used as demonstrative pronouns, without their noun, to avoid repetition and to simplify things.
Preferes este casaco ou aquele? Do you prefer this coat near speaker or that one far from both?
Prefiro esse. I prefer that one near listener.
Tip: In English, we often will add the word “one”, as in: “I want that/this one”. In Portuguese, this doesn’t happen.