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dele vs seu

When to Use Dele/Dela vs. Seu/Sua

Dele vs seu? When forming 3rd person possessives in European Portuguese, how do we decide when to use dele, dela, deles, delas  vs.  seu, sua, seus, suas?
Possessives formed with de are less ambiguous: they agree strictly with the subject, not with the object. In contrast, seu and its derivatives agree with the object, so we are not able to differentiate between the several possible 3rd person subjects without extra context.
In other words, when using dele, etc. you match it to the gender and number of the subject/person who possesses something. When using seu, etc. you match it to the gender and number of the object/thing being possessed.

Dele, dela, deles, delas

  • dele paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio his – When the subject is ele (him).
  • dela paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio her – When the subject is ela (her).
  • deles paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio their – When the subject is eles (them, a group with at least one male).
  • delas paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio their – When the subject is elas (them, an all-female group).

Seu, sua, seus, suas

These are also used for the same 3rd person subjects, but the specific form used must match the gender and number of the object/noun being modified, instead of the subject.

  • seu (masc. object) or sua (fem. object) – For a single object, regardless of which subject
  • seus (masc. objects) or suas (fem. objects) – For multiple objects, regardless of which subject

Disambiguation using Dele(s) and Dela(s)

Now let’s compare dele vs seu within sentences. Let’s say we had uma caneta paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio a pen (fem. noun) and um lápis paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio a pencil (masc. noun) and want to talk about who each belongs to. Notice that the examples below using seu and sua are the same in every single example. Without further context, the intended meanings are only clear when using dele(s) and dela(s).

Single male subject (ele):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio His pen and his pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta dele e o lápis dele. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio His pen and his pencil. – Subject agreement.

Single female subject (ela):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Her pen and her pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta dela e o lápis dela. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Her pen and her pencil. – Subject agreement.

Collective male subject (eles):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Their pen and their pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta deles e o lápis deles. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Their pen and their pencil. – Subject agreement.

Collective female subject (elas):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Their pen and their pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta delas e o lápis delas. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Their pen and their pencil. – Subject agreement.

What About the Pronoun Você?

Você paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio You(formal) is a second-person singular pronoun, but used with a third-person framework, which is why it also uses seu and its derivatives. Unlike the actual third-person pronouns (ele and ela), você can’t be combined with de in European Portuguese. So when deciding between dele vs seu, it will always be seu or its derivatives when it comes to você.
In Portugal, people tend to reserve seu(s) and sua(s) for instances in which the pronoun você is implied, while favouring dele(s) and dela(s) for the other third-person subjects:
O seu carro e a sua casa. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Your (formal) car and your (formal) house.
O carro e a casa dele. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio His car and house.
O carro e a casa dela. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Her car and house.
O carro e a casa deles. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Their (masc.) car and house.
O carro e a casa delas. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Their (fem.) car and house.

Comments

    • Formal sentence structures are used in every appropriate context, just as much as informal constructions. But yes, some people do avoid explicitly using the pronoun itself, “você”, choosing to omit it instead or to replace it by an alternative form of address. For example, instead of saying “Você precisa de ajuda?” (Do you need help?), people might say “O senhor/A senhora precisa de ajuda?”, or simply “Precisa de ajuda?”. I wouldn’t say that “você” is rarely used, just perhaps not as much as one would expect.

      We had an interesting discussion about this subject on our forum. You can read it here: https://forum.practiceportuguese.com/t/voce-vs-o-senhor-a-senhora/32

  • thank goodness there is a way of distinguishing as otherwise, it’s really hard to understand who is meant to own the object. Not very easy.

  • Hi
    Thank you so much for such a great course!
    I am unable to mark this lesson as complete as their is no button at the end, please can you help?
    Thanks!

    • Thanks, glad you’re enjoying it! Sorry about the missing button. There was a temporary bug, but it should show up now. 🙂

  • apologies, i still do not get it – is either of the folliowng correct please, and if so which one and why?

    Ela compra as suas meias
    Ela compra as meias dela

    Thank you so much!

    • Both are correct! However, the first one (Ela compra as suas meias) is ambiguous if you have no further context. It could mean her socks, his socks, your socks, or their socks. So you would probably only want to use this version if the owner of the socks is obvious from context.

      For example, if you were having a conversation about a woman buying some clothing for her daughter, and then you said “ela compra as suas meias”, it would be clear that you’re referring to her socks, meaning the daughter’s socks. But if you were talking about the woman buying clothes for her son, you would know that “as suas meias” refers to “his socks”.

      If you want to avoid the ambiguity, you can use “Ela compra as meias dela” instead, because this can only mean “her socks”. This is why dele/dela are much more common, but it’s important to understand both since you will hear it both ways.

      Does that help?

  • Didn’t there used to be an even more formal version, ‘vos’ ? Is this still used anywhere?

    • Olá, Hugh. Maybe you mean the personal pronoun “vós”? It is still present in parts of Portugal (and all native speakers still study it from a young age), but overall, it is rarely used.

  • Olá Molly, sou brasileiro e estava tentando entender a diferença de uso entre “seu” e “dele”. Várias gramáticas se abstêm de comentar sobre esse assunto. A sua frase “Possessives formed with de are less ambiguous: they agree strictly with the subject” tornou tudo muito claro pra mim! Pode me falar de onde você tirou essa informação? Gostaria de ler um pouco mais a respeito.

    Atenciosamente,
    Marcos

    • Olá Marcos. Obrigado pelo comentário! Estes artigos sobre as diferentes formas de expressar posse em português (este também te pode interessar) foram escritos com base em conhecimento prático da língua​​ conforme ela é falada em Portugal, pelo que, infelizmente, não me ocorre nenhum livro/material de referência para o qual te possa encaminhar diretamente. No entanto, acredito que não seja um tópico ignorado por todas as gramáticas. Talvez esta lista de gramáticas de interesse possa ser um bom ponto de partida para a tua pesquisa (link externo, não associado ao Practice Portuguese): Gramáticas da Língua Portuguesa.

  • i dont necessarily stick to the unit order when using PP, and somehow misssed the introduction of Dele/Dela! I’m so pleased to have found it now, it explains a multitude!
    Thanks.

  • Hi folks–

    In Lesson 7, can you explain why the use of “dos” in
    “Ele tem fotografias dos seus pais.”

    Maybe I missed it but all of the other exercises use “os seus.”

    Thought it was a trick question…..
    Thanks!

    Jeanne

    • Hi there! In this sentence you want to use “de” to say “OF his parents”. “Dos” is just a contraction of the words “de” and “os”. So instead of saying Ele tem fotografias de os seus pais, you combine them to be “dos”. You can see a chart of some of the ways “de” can combine with other words in this Learning Note: The Preposition “De”. And this one covers some of the contractions involving other prepositions: Portuguese Prepositions

  • Thank you Molly. I just dropped down to ask that question, and here is the answer already! I was VERY confused.

    • No problem! I also just added a note to that phrase since I’m sure there are many others with the same question. Thanks!

  • If you are referring to multiple objects possessed by the same person, can you just use one dele/dela… or does every noun always get its own possessive?

    That is, instead of “ A caneta dela e o lápis dela“ could you omit one (or more, if she also had, say, a notebook) Instance of the dela to be “ A caneta e o lápis dela.”?

    • Yes, you can! In fact, you should, because it sounds way more natural and it’s what we usually do. Here, these “de” contractions were repeated just for clarity 🙂

  • Wonderful website – often difficult to finds European portuguese.

    I was reading your section on Dele / Dela / Dela / Delas and had a question.

    Is it also possible to say things such as:

    As sapatas dos nossos / vossos são muito grandes.
    Eu preciso do nosso/ vosso cachorro.
    Eu gosto do nosso / vosso cachorro.
    Eu penso do nosso / vosso cachorro.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, Paul!

      About your question, it falls out of scope of this Learning Note. “Dele/dela/deles/delas” can only be used to express possession in the 3rd person, while “nosso” and “vosso” are a 1st-person plural and a 2nd-person plural possessive, respectively. So, all of them can definitely be used, but in the appropriate contexts. Here’s a helpful Learning Note that covers “nosso” and “vosso”: Introduction to Possessives

  • Thanks so much for explaining the differences. I have been wondering why some of my sentence translations were marked wrong and now I understand why! You explained the difference very well.

  • When answering Smart Review questions relevant to dele, dela / seu, sua, I can’t tell which version is required. I have now noticed the information ‘button’ often provided, so it isn’t a massive problem when choosing the Flash Card option, but it’s a bit of a nuisance in Quiz mode.
    Other than that I love the site and especially the great trouble you take to give detailed, but clear explanations of topics such as this one and also the fact that it’s so easy to find them for revision purposes.

    • Thanks so much for the feedback! You may be doing this already, but just wanted to mention: For the Flash Cards, even if it shows the other version, you can still mark yourself correct, since you know you’re using a correct alternative.

      Then for Quiz Mode, let us know if you run into any phrases that seem ambiguous. It should be set up so that only one would fit in the given word order (but it’s possible we missed some!). For example, if the fill in the blank comes after the ‘thing’ being possessed, you would know it can’t be seu/sua, since those always come before it.

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