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Portuguese Question Words

So, you are a beginner with a bold attitude and you want to start interacting in Portuguese right off the bat. I like that. One thing you’ll need to keep the conversation going, besides your bravery, is to get comfortable with asking questions.

In this article, I will walk you through a few key aspects of dealing with Portuguese interrogative sentences. We’ll start off with open-ended questions – those initiated with a question word – and then we’ll go over to yes/no type of questions.

Let’s get started.

Open-ended questions 

Open-ended questions are normally initiated with question words (how, why, what, etc). Compared to English, there are a few things you want to keep in mind when formulating these questions.  

Question words

We’ll start by looking at Portuguese question words and a few usage examples

In the table below, you see Portuguese and English question words paired up according to literal translation. 

This is, of course, a generalization. Either language has its own idiomatic ways of formulating questions and, oftentimes, such a one-to-one translation scheme won’t hold (e.g. Como te chamas? / What‘s your name?). 

That said, let’s have a look at Portuguese question words and their respective usage examples. (Listen to the audio below to practice the interrogative-sentence intonation.)

QUESTION WORDSUSAGE EXAMPLES
o que 
what
O que fizeste hoje?
What did you do today?

When standing alone, this question word is pronounced with a more open e-sound, and thus spelled with a circumflex accent on it:

O quê?
What?

When que is followed by a noun, you don’t add the pronoun o in front of  it:

Que dia é hoje?
What day is it today?
como 
how
Como te correu o dia?
How was your day?
quando 
when
Quando voltas do Brasil?
When are you coming back from Brazil?
onde/aonde
where
Onde estás?
Where are you?


Aonde indicates movent:

Aonde vais?
Where are you going?
porque  
why
Porque não casas comigo?
Why don’t you marry me?

Like o quê, when standing alone, this question word is pronounced with a more open e-sound, and thus takes the circumflex accent:

Porquê?
Why? 

Also, the same word porque means because:

Porque não casas comigo?
Porque não estou apaixonada por ti.
–  Why don’t you marry me?
– Because I am not in love with you.
quanto
how much
Quanto é?
How much is it?

Quanto custa?
How much does it cost?
quantos/quantas
how many
This question word conforms to the gender* of the noun it refers to:

Quantos pães comeste?
How many bread rolls did you eat?

Quantas maçãs compraste ontem?
How many apples did you buy yesterday?
qual/quais
which
This question word also conforms to the number** of the noun it refers to:

Qual preferes, a saia verde ou a amarela?
Which one do you prefer, the green skirt or yellow?

Quais preferes, as camisas de lã ou de algodão?
Which ones do you prefer, the cotton or the wool shirts?

* Speaking of gender! Learn more about how gender pervades Portuguese:  Disentangling Gender with Portuguese Masculine-to-Feminine Spelling Patterns.

** In Portuguese, there are a few singular-to-plural conversion patterns. Knowing them will make your life easier: Forming the Plural in Portuguese: Singular-to-Plural Conversion Patterns to Keep an Eye On.

Reversed word order

In Portuguese, by default, question words initiate the interrogative sentence. However, it is not rare that we invert the word order placing them last in the sentence. Here’re a few reversed sentences from the examples:

Voltas do Brazil quando?
Estás onde?
Não casas comigo porquê?

No auxiliary

Unlike in English, we don’t need to use an auxiliary verb to ask open-ended questions:

Onde puseste as chaves?
Where did you put the keys?

As you see in the example above, only one verb is used, namely pôr (in the past tense). 

The redundant “é que” 

You will eventually realize, if you haven’t already, that Portuguese open-ended questions can be formulated either with or without the redundant little phrase é que:  

(1) Como te chamas?
(2) Como é que te chamas?
What’s your name?

(1) Onde vais?
(2) Onde é que vais?
Where are you going?

Qual é o teu prato favorito?
Qual é que é o teu prato favorito?
What’s your favorite dish?

Never fret, both variants mean exactly the same thing. True, the longer version feels somehow more colloquial and you’ll hear it more often in daily life, but this difference in style is subtle.

Yes/no questions

These questions call for a yes-or-no type of answer. Also, these questions are formulated without any question words. 

In Portuguese, these interrogative sentences look the same as declarative sentences – the word order is kept unchanged. Let’s look at the following examples: 

Declarative
Tu estás no Porto. 
You are in Porto.

Interrogative
Tu estás no Porto?
Are you in Porto?

As you see, contrarily to English, the verb follows the subject in both declarative and interrogative sentences.

Because interrogative and declarative sentences look the same, it is important to intonate the sentences so that they come across as intended. 

For instance, when asking Tu estás no Porto?  you want to finish your utterance in a rising tone so that it clearly sounds like a question (refer to the audio track above). Otherwise, the context itself will sort it out for you. 

No auxiliary

Like in open-ended questions, yes/no questions do perfectly well without an auxiliary verb: 

O carro tem gasolina suficiente?
Does the car have enough gas? 

Ele já chegou de Inglaterra?
Did he already arrive from England?

Further reading! Read the following article to learn more about Portuguese verb usage compared to English: Portuguese Verb Usage and Tenses: A Practical Guide Anchored to English.

Answering a yes/no question

Usually, we don’t answer these questions with only a bare yes or no. Normally, we repeat the verb being used in the question: 

– Estás na Suécia?
– Sim, estou. / Não, não estou
– Are you in Sweden?
– Yes, I am. / No, I am not.

– Já viste este filme? 
– Sim, já vi. / Não, ainda não vi.
– Have you already seen this movie?
– Yes, I have. / No, I haven’t.

Question tags

Affirmative sentences

Like English question tags, we also utter those reassuring little add-ons at the end of sentences. Let’s look at a few affirmative cases:

Ele gosta de cinema, não gosta?
He likes cinema, doesn’t he?

Tu dormes muito, não dormes?
You sleep a lot, don’t you?

As you can see, you form question tags to affirmative sentences by putting together the negative não with the same verb form of the main sentence.

Otherwise, you can always use the universal question tag: não é? By using this option, you won’t even need to pay heed to the verb in the main sentence. Easy: 

Ele gosta de cinema, não é?
He likes cinema, doesn’t he?

Tu dormes muito, não é?
You sleep a lot, don’t you?

Negative sentences

Let’s now look at how it works with negative sentences:

Ele não gosta de pintar, pois não?
He doesn’t enjoy painting, does he?

Tu não fumas muito, pois não?
You don’t smoke that much, do you?

As you can see above, concerning negative sentences, the question tag always looks the same –  pois não? – regardless of the verb in the main sentence. 

Reading tips! Have you been struggling with speaking Portuguese? Here’s something that might help you transcend your shortcomings: Here’s How to Push Through Your Portuguese Speaking Skills.

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