When to Use Dele/Dela vs. Seu/Sua

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.

Dele, dela, deles, delas

  • dele his – When the subject is ele (him).
  • dela her – When the subject is ela (her).
  • deles their – When the subject is eles (them, a group with at least one male).
  • delas 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 with Dele(s) and Dela(s)

Let’s say we had uma caneta a pen (fem. noun) and um lápis a pencil (masc. noun) and want to talk about who each belongs to. Notice that the examples below using seu and sua are all the same, despite very different meanings, which are revealed with the use of dele(s) and dela(s).

Single male subject (ele):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. His pen and his pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta dele e o lápis dele. His pen and his pencil. – Subject agreement.

Single female subject (ela):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. Her pen and her pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta dela e o lápis dela. Her pen and her pencil. – Subject agreement.

Collective male subject (eles):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. Their pen and their pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta deles e o lápis deles. Their pen and Their pencil. – Subject agreement.

Collective female subject (elas):

A sua caneta e o seu lápis. Their pen and their pencil. – Object agreement.
A caneta delas e o lápis delas. Their pen and Their pencil. – Subject agreement.

What About the Pronoun Você?

Você 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.
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. Your formal car and your formal house.
O carro e a casa dele. His car and house.
O carro e a casa dela. Her car and house.
O carro e a casa deles. Their masc. car and house.
O carro e a casa delas. 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?

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