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In general, prepositions have an infamous reputation among language learners, and judging by all the whining and moaning I’ve heard from students throughout the years, Portuguese prepositions are definitely not the exception.
In this article, I will walk you through five basic Portuguese prepositions. I call them the “Big Five”: (1) em, (2) de, (3)a, (4)para, and (5)por.
The reason I am focusing on these five prepositions is that they truly are the prepositional bread & butter of Portuguese. Here’s a brief and simplified usage summary:
em primarily a preposition of place
Ela vive em Itália. She lives in Italy.
de often used as a preposition of origin
Eu sou de Portugal. I come from Portugal.
a primarily a preposition of movement
O Carlos vai a Lisboa. Carlos is going to Lisbon.
para indicates movement with an emphasis on direction
Este autocarro vai para Londres. This bus is going to London.
por indicates passage and itinerary
Podes passar por minha casa mais trade? Can you stop by my house later on?
In what follows, we’ll go through each of these five prepositions in more detail. Besides delving into their usage, we’ll look into their contractions (with other word classes) as well as their pairing with verbs and question words.
Prepositions are either single words or groups of words that we use to show a relationship in space, time, or logic between two or more people, places, or things. Most commonly, prepositions appear in front of a noun phrase or pronoun.
Here’s a more prosaic definition: prepositions are lubricating agents that help articulate the different components of a sentence, thus making the latter more intelligible and easier to follow.
Take the following example, first without and then with the prepositions in place:
(1) I go work the mornings. (2) I go to work in the mornings.
While you still may be able to make out the first sentence (if you put little effort into it), the second – with the preposition to giving a sense of direction and in situating the action in time – is much more assertive, clear, and easy to follow.
As to why preposition usage is normally perceived as “slippery”, there are different factors at play.
Why are they elusive?
Let’s start by noting that prepositions only pain those dealing with learning a second language. Native speakers couldn’t care less. They just get it right without ever needing to develop a conceptual understanding of it – much like we innocently breathe in and out without ever thinking about the intricate labor going on in our lungs and diaphragm as we do it.
Here are some reasons why prepositions can baffle language learners.
Prepositions are not black-and-white. As we’ll see in a moment, it is not unusual that, depending on the context, the same preposition can refer to either time, movement, place, or something else.
For example, in the sentences, I am going to London and I’m doing this to help you, the same preposition to is denoting different things, namely indicating direction in the first and purpose in the second. Portuguese prepositions, too, are ambiguous in this way, which often disconcerts language learners.
Often, different prepositions are used in very similar ways. Consider for instance the following sentences:
I am at the station vs. I am by the station
I am working on it vs. I am working at it
Let’s look at this vs. Let’s look into this
He came to me vs. He came at me
This is relevant to me vs. This is relevant for me
While there’s surely a difference in the paired sentences above, that difference can be quite subtle. Those subtleties may not be that easy to grasp by those learning a second language.
In the prepositions that we are about to explore, there’s also a fair amount of delicate prepositional nuancing.
More often than not, prepositional usage stays out of logical realms. Much to the misfortune of language learners, prepositions often behave whimsically.
Think about it. Why do we say I am on the train, I am on the bus, I am on the plane, but I am in the car? Or why do we look to the right butwe look at the sky? Portuguese prepositions are no better.
No one-to-one English-Portuguese prepositional bonding
Attention all English native speakers! There surely isn’t a one-to-one relationship between Portuguese and English prepositions. Depending on the context, the same Portuguese preposition can correspond to two or more English prepositions. And vice versa.
Additionally, there are situations where one language calls to a preposition while the other does well without any.
Unlike in English, Portuguese prepositions are highly contractible and they are therefore likely to merge with other words surrounding them, namely determiners*. This means that you’ve got to keep track of not only the preposition itself (in its plain form) but also of its derivatives (merged forms).
* Speaking of determiners. These are words such as articles, demonstratives, and possessives among others. They normally come right before a noun specifying both its gender and number. Learn more about gender and number in Portuguese, and how determiners change their endings to conform to it:
In sum, prepositions are somehow messy and demand generous doses of exposure to your target language until they become second nature to you.
While this article is no replacement for that exposure, it can bring you conceptual clarity about preposition usage in Portuguese. In that sense, it offers you a solid foundation to build upon.
Portuguese preposition em
Em is best known for being a preposition of place. However, as we’ll see further below, we also use em to indicate time. In English, em can correspond to either in, on, or at depending on the situation.
Before we delve into em’s usage, let’s look into its contracted forms.
More often than not, the preposition em merges with other word classes. For instance, articles and demonstratives will frequently merge with it.
Let’s take a closer look at it to see what these contracted forms look like.
By default, the preposition em contracts with the articles, definite and indefinite, following it:
no (em + o)
na (em + a)
nos (em + os)
nas (em + as)
num (em + um)
numa (em + uma)
nuns (em + uns)
numas (em + umas)
Additionally, the preposition em melts into a contracted form with demonstrative pronouns* following it:
We use em as a preposition of place and, depending on the situation, it can correspond to either the English preposition in, on, or at. Here’re a few examples:
Estou a viver em Londres. I am living in London.
Estou a morar na Suécia. (a Suécia) I am living in Sweden.
The above sentences illustrate a pattern that all beginners, sooner or later, come across. So, we normally use the plain form em when we talk about cities, whereas we tend to use the contracted form when referring to countries.
See, city names in Portuguese are normally gender-neutral, whereas countries tend to be either masculine or feminine. As always, there are a few exceptions:
Estou a viver no Rio de Janeiro. (o Rio de Janeiro) I am living in Rio de Janeiro.
Estou a morar em Portugal. I am living in Portugal.
Let’s take a few more examples:
Ela já está no comboio. She’s already on the train.
Vivo numa pequena cidade. I live in a small city.
Eles estão na casa de verão. They are at the summer house.
But, we use the plain form when casa means home:
Eles estão em casa. They are at home.
Here’re a couple of sentences where em contracts with demonstratives:
Ela gosta mais de se sentar nessa cadeira. She prefers to sit on that chair.
Fui muito feliz nesta cidade. I was very happy in this city.
We also use em to indicate time, for instance when mentioning the year, season, month, or a specific date. Let’s look at the following dialogue where someone is waking up from a long coma:
– Em que ano estamos? (Which year are we in?) – Em 2020, claro. (In 2020, of course.) – E em que mês?(And in which month?) – Estamos em outubro. (We’re in October.) – Então estamos no outono. (Then we’re in autumn.) – Sim, certo. (That’s right.) – Já estamos no Natal? (Are we already at Christmas?) – Não, o Natal é só em dezembro. (No, Christmas is only in December.)
Additionally, we use em right before the weekdays when referring to non-recurring events:
Na segunda tenho uma reunião de trabalho. On Monday (this Monday) I have a work meeting.
Neste sábado vou jogar futebol. This Saturday I am playing soccer.
If we mean recurring events, though, we use the preposition a instead:
Às segundas costumo ter uma reunião de trabalho. On Mondays, I normally have a work meeting.
We’ll soon be looking at the preposition a. As for now, let’s resume this em-journey.
Verbs followed by em
Here’re a few commonly used verbs often followed by the preposition em:
Nós moramosno Brasil. We live in Brazil.
O Carlos senta-sena cadeira. Carlos sits on the chair.
A Ana deita a água no tacho. Ana pours the water into the pot.
Entrar Come in
Nós entramos no restaurante e estava vazio. We came into the restaurant and it was empty.
Penso muito em ti. I think a lot about you.
Não hesites em contactar-me! Never hesitate to contact me!
Question words preceded by em
The question word * que is often preceded by em: em que … ? – thus hinting at either place or time:
Em que comboio estás? Which train are you on?
Em que empresa trabalhas? What company are you working for?
Em que ano é que te casaste? What was the year you got married?
This verb followed by de means need to (otherwise it only means to be precise):
Ela precisou de levantar dinheiro. She needed to withdraw cash.
Precisas de praticar mais Português. You need to practice more Portuguese.
A few more verbs:
Estavam a falar de mim? Were you talking about me?
Quero mudar de ares. I want a change of scene.
Sair Leave/go out
A que horas sais do escritorio? What time do you leave the office?
Vir/ chegar Come / arrive
Vim agora da casa da Filipa. I just came from Filipa’s.
Não te lembras de mim? Don’t you remember me?
Acabar Finish (in the past tense, it can also mean “just”)
Ele acaboude comer foi para a cama. He finished eating and went to bed.
Ela acabou de sair. She just left.
Question words preceded by de
The questions words onde, quem, que, and quando are sometimes preceded by de:
De onde Where from
De onde és? Where do you come from?
De quem Whom, who
De quem é este caderno? Who does this notebook belong to?
De que What, from what
De que país é ele? What’s his home country?
De quando How old, from which year/month
De quando é este carro? How old is this car?
Portuguese preposition a
The preposition a most commonly denotes movement, although it is also used as a preposition of time and place. In English, depending on the situation, it corresponds to either to, on, or at.
The preposition a combines with fewer determiners than the previous two, that is, only definite articles and demonstratives starting with the letter a.
The preposition a will contract with definite articles only:
ao (a + o)
à (a + a)
aos (a + os)
às (a + as)
Additionally, a only contracts with the following demonstratives:
that over there
àquilo (a + aquilo)
àquele/s (a + aquele/s)
àquela/s (a + aquela/s)
We use a as a preposition of movement and, in that case, it most likely corresponds to to. Here are a few examples:
Eles foram à praia. They went tothe beach.
Ela foi ao restaurante para almoçar. She went to the restaurant to have lunch.
Much like the English at, we also use a to say the hours:
A aula começa às 9 e acaba às 10 horas da manhã. The lecture starts at 9 am and ends at 10 am.
Acabamos de conversar ao meio-dia. We were done chatting at midday.
What’s more, we use a to refer to the parts of the day:
À tarde vou encontrar-me com o Miguel. I will meet Miguel in theafternoon.
Hoje à noite há cinema. We’re going to the cinema tonight.
But, and as we’ve seen before (under de-usage),
De manhã costumo ficar em casa. I usually stay home in the mornings.
Additionally, we use a to talk about recurring events in conjunction with the days of the week:
O Vitor tem aula de Inglês à quarta-feira. Vitor has English class on Wednesdays.
However, we use em if we mean a one-off event:
O Vitor tem uma aula de Inglês na quarta-feira. Vitor has an English class this Wednesday.
Finally, we use a to indicate the end of a time period (and de to indicate its beginning):
Eu trabalho de segunda a sexta. I work from Monday to Friday.
Tu trabalhas das 8 horas às 17 horas. You work from 8 am to 5 pm.
Lastly, we use a to indicate proximity to someone or something:
Está alguém à porta. There’s someone at the door.
Porquê é que estás sempre à janela? Why are you always at the window?
Verbs followed by a
A handful of Portuguese auxiliary verbs are followed by the preposition a:
Estoua gostar disto. I am enjoying this.
Agora começoa perceber. Now, I start to understand.
Vou aprender a falar russo. I will learn to speak Russian.
Ele ajudou-me a construir a casa. He helped me to build my house.
Ando a frequentar aulas de Chinês. I have been taking Chinese classes.
*in the quality of an auxiliary verb, “andar” only works as a grammatical marker indicating a certain time-flow quality and without any semantic value.
Other verbs (in the quality of the main verb) often followed by a:
Chegar Arrive / come
Ela já chegou a Lisboa? Has she already arrived in Lisbon?
Assistir Watch (live)
Vou assistir a um jogo de futebol. I will watch a soccer match.
Foste ao Brasil? Did you go to Brazil?
Voltar Return / come back
Quando voltas a Portugal? When do you return to Portugal?
Agradece ao Sr António. Say thanks to Mr. António.
Pede à Gabriela para vir aqui. Ask Gabriela to come here.
Já pagastea hipoteca ao banco? Have you already paid your mortgage to the bank?
Ainda não respondeste à Isabel? Haven’t you replied to Isabel yet?
Quem sucedeu ao trono? Who succeeded the throne?
Adverbial phrases with a
Here’re a few widely used adverbial phrases with a:
às vezes sometimes
à deriva adrift
à sorte / à toa at random
à espera waiting
até às tantas until late in the night
às tantas / às duas por três maybe (surprisingly)
a pé by foot
à mão by hand
à pressa in a rush
às ordens (de alguém) at (someone’s ) command
à nora clueless
à moda de according to (a tradition or style)
à francesa French style à inglesa English style à portuguesa Portuguese style. . .
à maluca in a crazy, unfettered manner
a torto e a direito haphazardly
à grande e à francesa lavishly
às cegas blindly
à vontade comfortably
Question words preceded by a
The question words quem, que, quando,and como are sometimes preceded by a. A few examples:
A quem To whom, who
A quem vais dar a prenda? Who are you giving the present to?
A que To which
A que restaurante foste? To which restaurant did you go?
A quanto é/são A como é/são How much
A quanto são as batatas? How much do you sell the potatoes for? (per kg)
Portuguese preposition para
Like the preposition a, we often use para to indicate movement. With para, however, the sense of direction and final destination is more strongly marked.
Besides movement, we use para to indicate purpose and to refer to the time ahead. In English, para often corresponds to either to or for.
What’s more, para is the only preposition of the Big Five thatwon’t merge with determiners. Thus, we’ll jump straight to the usage examples:
Movement > direction and destination
We use para to denote both direction and final destination:
Ele virou-se para mim. He turned to me.
Este comboio vai para Lisboa. This train is going to Lisbon.
Para vs. a > long vs. short stay
Language learners often struggle to discern between the prepositions a and para – either indicates a movement towards a destination or point. There’s a difference, however.
While a suggests a kind of a round-trip with a short stay at the implied destination, para suggests more of a one-way motion, thus implying a longer stay at the place of arrival. Let’s understand this better through a few concrete examples:
O Luís foi à Madeira passar o fim de semana. Luís went to Madeira for the weekend.
O Luís foi viver para a Madeira. Luis went to Madeira to live there.
Let’s look at another example on a different time scale:
A Matilde saiu de casa às 9h e foi para o teatro. Matilde left home at 9 am and went to the theatre. (She works there.)
Ontem a Matilde foi ao teatro. Yesterday, Matilde went tothe theatre. (She went there to watch a play.)
We use para to denote intention and purpose:
Ela saiu para ir ao banco. She left to go to the bank.
Ele está a aprender Inglês para poder viajar pelo mundo. He’s learning English so that he can travel the world.
Also, we say para to refer to a recipient:
Isto é para ti! This is for you.
Aqueles morangos ali são para o Carlos. Those strawberries over there are for Carlos.
Finally, we use para to indicate the time ahead:
Até para a semana. I will see you next week.
Para o ano que vem vou à Colômbia. Next year I will go to Colombia.
Vou marcar uma consulta para as 17 horas. I will book an appointment with the doctor at 5 pm.
São 20 para as 18 horas. It’s 20 to 6 pm.
Verbs followed by para
Some verbs are often followed by para. Typically, these are verbs implying either movement, direction, or purpose:
Vais para Lisboa? Are you going to Lisbon?
Voltar Return/come back
Quando voltas para o Porto? When are you coming back to Porto?
Ela vem para Portugal. She comes to Portugal.
Ele chegou para ficar. He came to stay.
Olha para mim! Look at me!
Pedi à Joana para me dar uma ajuda. I asked Joana to give me a hand.
Question words preceded by para
The question words quem, que, onde, and quando are sometimes preceded by para. A few examples:
Para quem To whom, who
Para quem é o livro? Who is this book for?
Para que Why
Para que precisas disto? Why do you need this?
Para quando When
Para quando quer o fato? When do you need the suit to be ready?
Para onde Where
Para onde vai? Where are you going?
Portuguese preposition por
We often use por as a preposition of movement to denote an “on-the-go” motion. In English, por often becomes by or through.
Let’s take a look into por’s contracted forms.
The preposition por only combines with the definite articles:
pelo (por + o)
pela (por + a)
pelos (por + os)
pelas (por + as)
Movement > on the go
We use por as a preposition of movement to indicate passage, that is, an on-the-go transitory state. Here are a few examples:
Podes passar pelo supermercado? Can you drop bythe supermarket?
Hoje à tarde passei pela Catarina mas ela não me viu! This afternoon I passed by Catarina but she didn’t notice me!
Movement > itinerary
We also use por when we talk about a route or itinerary:
Vai por aqui, é mais perto. Go this way, it’s closer.
Also, we use por to refer to people being at some distant place without really knowing their detailed whereabouts. In other words, it implies spatial vagueness. From the speaker’s side, it can also convey a sense of unfamiliarity/abstraction with the place in point:
Ele está a viajar pela Ásia. He’s travelling around Asia.
Ela está lá pela Índia. She is somewhere in India.
Time > approximation
What’s more, we use por to indicate vicinity (timewise):
Eles chegam hoje pelas 15h. They arrive today around 3 pm.
Time > duration
We also use por to refer to a time period:
Ela vai ficar na Índia por um mês. He’s staying in India for a whole month.
Verbs followed by por
We often use the following verbs in conjunction with the preposition por:
Passar Pass by
Passas cá por casa? Are you dropping by my place?
Vou por este caminho. I am following this path.
Voltar Return / come back
Desta vez vou voltar por Lisboa. This time around I will return via Lisbon.
Vens pela ponte? Are you taking the bridge?
Question words preceded by por
The question words onde and quanto can sometimes be preceded by por:
Por onde Where to go
Por onde é o caminho? What’s the way?
Por quanto How much
Por quanto vende estas flores? How much do you want for these flowers?
Beyond the Big Five
There are, of course, other commonly used Portuguese prepositions other than em, de, a, para and por. Let’s take a look at some of them.
conforme according to
sobre over, about
segundo according to
salvo, exceto except
perante in the presence of, before
em vez de in place of, instead
de acordo com in accordance with, accordingly
abaixo de below
apesar de despite, in spite of
através de through
em abaixo de under
a fim de in order to
graças a thanks to
acima de above
antes de before
junto a, perto de, próximo de, ao pé de next to, near, close to