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Portuguese Modal Verbs

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that allow us to express things like necessity, possibility, certainty, doubt, and ability. We use them all the time.

You’d agree that the sentences you must study more and you should study more have distinct auras and imply different tones to what’s being said, namely one of obligation and guidance respectively.

Like in English, Portuguese modal verbs refine the meaning of our words making our utterances more clear and precise.

Now, a good command of Portuguese modal verbs requires a reasonable level of familiarization with the language. For instance, the modal verb poder may correspond to the English modals can, could, must, have to, or may – it all hinges on the context and subtleties of tone.

To make you familiar with commonly used Portuguese modal expressions, I believe that having English modals as a reference is a good strategy. Thus, in what follows, we’ll be looking at the Portuguese equivalents to the following English modal verbs:

ENGLISH MODALSPORTUGUESE EQUIVALENTS
Canpoder, conseguir, dar
Couldpoder, conseguir
Must/have toter que, precisar de, poder, dever
May/mightdever, poder, talvez, se calhar, pode ser que
Shoulddever

Let’s get started.

Can

In English, the modal verb can is used to either express possibility, permission, or ability. In Portuguese, we’ll be using poder to express possibility and permission, and conseguir to express the ability to do or achieve something. 

Poder > there’s the possibility 

To express possibility and permission, we’ll be using the auxiliary verb poder:

Poder
(presente)
euposso
tupodes
ele/ela
você
pode
nóspodemos
vocêspodem
eles/elaspodem

Here’re a few examples:

Se quiseres podemos ir ao quarto para tomar um duche.
If you want, we can go to our room and take a shower.

Posso fumar aqui?
Can I smoke here?

Não podes fazer tudo o que queres.
You can’t do everything you want.

Conseguir > there’s the ability to do or achieve something

To express ability, on the other hand, we’ll be using conseguir:

Conseguir
(presente)
euconsigo
tuconsegues
ele/ela
você
consegue
nósconseguimos
vocêsconseguem
eles/elasconseguem

A few examples:

Conseguimos ver o mar do quarto do hotel.
We can see the sea from the hotel room.

– Falta-te a faca, queres que te vá buscar uma?
– Não importa, eu consigo comer só com o garfo. 
– You don’t have any knives. Should I fetch you one?
– Nevermind, I can eat with just the fork.

Now, the verb conseguir has a narrower usage than poder and is specifically used to express ability. Being more flexible, the verb poder can often, but not always, replace conseguir:

(1) Adoro-te! Não me consigo imaginar sem ti.
(2) Adoro-te! Não me posso  imaginar sem ti.
I love you! I can’t imagine myself without you. 

Further reading! Here’s an article focusing on the verbs poder and conseguir and their differences: How to Tell “Poder” Apart From “Conseguir” in Portuguese.

Dar > a wild card

Before we move on to the next modal verb, could,  I want to mention that you can often replace both poder and conseguir with the verb dar *  followed by the preposition para:

(1) Posso fumar aqui?
(2) Dá para fumar aqui?
Can I smoke here?

(1) Conseguimos ver o mar do quarto do hotel.
(2) Dá para ver o mar do quarto do hotel.
We can see the sea from the hotel room.

* the Portuguese verb dar is incredibly versatile and its usage extends across a wide idiomatic range. Learn more about it in this article: The Portuguese verb ‘dar’: usage and idiomatic expressions.

Could

Could is, of course, the past form of can. However, there are a number of other ways to use it. Let’s have a closer look at it and find out its Portuguese equivalents.

Poder > there was the possibility

To express possibility in the past, we’ll now be using poder in the imperfect tense *:

Conseguir
(pretérito imperfeito)
eupodia
tupodias
ele/ela
você
podia
nóspodíamos
vocêspodiam
eles/elaspodiam

In Portuguese, there are two simple past tenses: Perfect and Imperfect. Learn more about their differences: Portuguese Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense: Know When to Use Which.

Here’re a couple of the examples:

Tu sabias que ela não fala Inglês. Não podias falar Português?
You knew she didn’t speak any English. Couldn’t you speak Portuguese?

Antigamente podia-se fumar nos restaurants.
In the old days, you could smoke in restaurants. 

Conseguir > there was the ability

To express ability in the past we will now be using conseguir conjugated in the imperfect tense:

Conseguir 
(pretérito imperfeito)
euconseguia
tuconseguias
ele/ela 
você
conseguia
nósconseguíamos
vocêsconseguiam
eles/elasconseguiam

A few examples:

O meu irmão conseguia falar cinco línguas. 
My brother could speak five languages. 

Quando era novo conseguia suster a respiração durante mais de dois minutos. 
When I was younger, I could hold my breath for more than two minutes.

Poder > there is a possibility ahead

Could is also used to talk about possible actions now or in the future (especially when making suggestions). In this case, we’ll continue to use poder in the imperfect tense:

– O que vamos fazer hoje à tarde?
Podíamos ir ao cinema.
– What are we doing this afternoon?
– We could go to the cinema.

– Quando vieres a Portugal no próximo mês podias ficar em minha casa.
– When you come to Portugal next month, you could stay at my place.

You could, to be sure, use can in this same context – it just makes it sound less hypothetical. In that case, we, too, would switch poder over to the present tense:

– O que vamos fazer hoje à tarde?
Podemos ir ao cinema.
– What are we doing this afternoon?
– We can go to the cinema.

Poder > what would it be like?  

Also, we use could to assert that something would be, or not, possible/acceptable under imaginary circumstances.  In this case, we’d use poder in the imperfect tense:

Não podia trabalhar mais de 30 horas por semana.
I couldn’t work more than 30 hours a week.

Nós também podíamos viver felizes no campo.
I could also live happily in the countryside.

Poder > wishful thinking

Poder, like could, is used to express unrealistic things. Once more, we’ll be using poder in the imperfect tense:

Adoro Lisboa. Podia ficar lá a viver para sempre.
I love Lisbon. I could stay there forever.

Este filme é o máximo. Podia vê-lo mil vezes.
This movie is awesome. I could watch it a thousand times.

You’d also use could/poder to talk about unrealistic situations referring to the past: 

Estava tão cansado que podia ter dormido durante uma semana inteira.
I was so exhausted that I could have slept for a whole week.

As you see above, we’re using a verb structure that looks alike in Portuguese and English. Accordingly, there are two auxiliary verbs (poder/could in the past tense and ter/have in the infinitive) followed by the past participle * of the main verb.

* Learn more about the Portuguese Past Participle in this article: Portuguese Past Participle and Auxiliary Verbs that Go with It.

Poder > it could happen … 

Could and poder are also used to suggest that sudden changes, now or in the future, are possible. In this case, we’ll be using poder in the present tense:

Neste momento reina a paz, mas a guerra pode eclodir a qualquer momento.
There is peace right now, but the war could break out anytime. 

O tempo está bom agora mas pode mudar rapidamente.
It is fair weather right now, but it could change quickly. 

Must (have to)

We use must or have to to say that we need, or ought to, do something. Both expressions are often used interchangeably. Conversely, in Portuguese, we’ll be using the verb ter followed by the particle que

Ter que (precisar de) > obligation (necessity) 

Here’s what ter looks like:

Ter
(presente)(pretérito perfeito)
eutenhotive
tutenstiveste
ele/ela 
você
temteve
nóstemostivemos
vocêstêmtiveram
eles/elastêmtiveram

A few examples:

Tenho que ir embora agora.
I must leave now.

Tens que aceitar os factos.
You have to accept the facts.

In fact, you can say either ter que or ter de* – both variants mean exactly the same and are equally common. Here’s another example referring to the future: 

Perdi o meu telemóvel. Vou ter de comprar um novo.
I lost my mobile. I’ll have to buy a new one.

And now an example referring to the past:

O tempo era pouco, tivemos que nos despachar. 
We were short of time, so we had to hurry up.

As you could see, the structure ter que/de works well for both future and past. For the future, we’re using the auxiliary ir followed by the infinitive form of ter (equivalent to the English structure be going to). For the past, ter is being conjugated in the perfect tense (pretérito perfeito).

* Several verbs are often followed by de. Learn more about this preposition: Portuguese Preposition “De”: A Usage Guide.

Poder vs ter que (precisar de) > mustn’t vs don’t have to 

In English, mustn’t and don’t have to mean different things. Here’s what the Portuguese equivalents look like:

Vou-te dizer o meu segredo, mas não podes contar a ninguém.
I will tell you my secret, but you mustn’t tell anyone.

Notice that we use poder, not ter que, to say that someone mustn’t do something. Let’s now look at the equivalent of don’t have to:

(1) Não tenho que te contar a minha vida, pois não?
(2) Não preciso de contar a minha vida, pois não?
(1) I don’t have to tell you about my life, do I?
(2) I don’t need to tell you about my life, do I?

Notice that the two alternatives listed above represent subtle variations and mean nearly the same thing. Arguably, ter que expresses obligation, whereas precisar de expresses a need. 

In the end, however, much depends on our tone, that is, how we say it. For the most part, they can be used interchangeably. You’d probably agree that the following examples are nearly perfect substitutes:

(1) Tenho que ir à casa de banho.
(2) Preciso de ir à casa de banho.
(1) I have to go to the restroom.
(
2) I need to go to the restroom.

Dever > with all likelihood 

In English, we use must to say that we believe that something is certain. In Portuguese, we’ll often use the auxiliary dever:

Dever
(presente)(pretérito imperfeito)
eudevodevia
tudevesdevias
ele/ela 
você
devedevia
nósdevemosdevíamos
vocêsdevemdeviam
eles/elasdevemdeviam

Here’re a few examples:

Tu vais para Nova Iorque amanhã. Deves estar excitado.
You are going to New York tomorrow. You must be excited.

A Joana deve ficar aborrecida com trabalho dela. É sempre o mesmo todos os dias. 
Joana must get bored with her job. She does exactly the same thing every day.

For the past, we’ll use a similar structure as English, that is, two auxiliary verbs followed by the main one: 

– Não está ninguém em casa.
Devem ter saído.
– There’s nobody at home.
– They must have gone out.

As you can see, in both languages, the first auxiliary comes in the present tense, the second auxiliary in the infinitive, and the main verb in the past participle. Sometimes, however, we can simply use dever in the imperfect tense followed by the main verb in the infinitive:

– Nós vivíamos junto ao aeroporto.
– Ai sim? Devia ser barulhento.
– We used to live by the airport?
– Did you? It must have been noisy.

May/might

In English, we use may or might to express mild probability, that is, to say that we believe something to be the case, though not without reservation. In this case, in Portuguese, we’ll be often using dever.

Dever > chances are…  

A few examples:

– Sabes onde está a Rita?
– Ele deve estar no quarto dela
– Do you know where Rita is?
– She might be in her room.

– O Gustavo deve ir embora hoje.
– Gustavo may leave today.

In a few cases, however, the verb poder is a better fit. Compare the following nuances:

Pode ser verdade
It may be true

Deve ser verdade
It must be true

For the past: 

– Acho estranho que o Paulo ainda não tenha chegado.
Pode ter adormecido.
– I wonder why Paulo hasn’t arrived yet.
– He might have overslept

As you see, the Portuguese and English verb structures are analogous, that is, the two auxiliary verbs are followed by the main verb in the past participle.

Se calhar (talvez) > perhaps 

What’s more, we use may or might to talk about possible happenings in the future coupled with a higher degree of uncertainty. In Portuguese, the most common way to go about it is to  use the adverb se calhar (perhaps) followed by the main verb:

Se calhar vou ao Brasil de férias. Ainda não me decidi.
(1) I may go to Brazil to spend my holidays. I haven’t decided yet.
(2) Perhaps I will go to Brazil to spend my holidays …

You can, of course, use talvez instead of se calhar – they are synonyms. In that case, however, the main verb comes in the present tense of the subjunctive mode:

Talvez vá ao Brasil de férias. Ainda não me decidi.
I might go to Brazil to spend my holidays. I haven’t decided yet.

Now, compare the previous examples with this one:

Devo ir ao Brasil de férias. Tenho quase a certeza.
I might go to Brazil to spend my holidays. I am almost sure. 

In this case, because the likelihood is higher than before, we’ve gone back to dever

Pode ser que (talvez) > it depends …

Let’s now look at an example where might is used to express a possibility coupled with a conditional clause:

(1) Se ele pedir desculpa, talvez o perdoe.
(2) Se ele pedir desculpa, pode ser que o perdoe.
If he apologizes, I might forgive him.

Here we have two alternatives. In the first one, we’re using the adverb talvez followed by the main verb (subjunctive mood). In the second, though, we’re using the structure pode ser que (literally, it can be that ) plus the main verb (also in the subjunctive mood).

Should

We use should either to give advice or to say that we expect something to happen. Let’s look at the Portuguese equivalents.

Dever > advice 

In English, should is used when giving advice. In Portuguese, we’ll be using dever in the imperfect tense (pretérito imperfeito). Here’re a few examples:

Tu estás cansado, devias fazer uma pausa.
You look tired, you should take a break.

– Achas que devíamos começar a ir para a cama mais cedo?
– Sim, acho que devíamos.
– Do you think we should start going to bed earlier?
– Yes. I think we should.

Devias pedir desculpa.
You should apologize.

Let’s now take a look at what it look likes for the past tense:

Perdeste um grande jantar ontem. Devias ter vindo.
You missed a great dinner yesterday. You should have come.

Sinto-me um autêntico idiota. Não devia ter dito aquilo. 
I’m feeling like such an idiot. I shouldn’t have said those things.

As you see above, English and Portuguese use similar verb structures, that is, the two auxiliary verbs followed by the main verb in the past participle. 

Dever > expectation

What’s more, in English, we use should to say that we expect something to happen. In Portuguese, we’ll be using dever in the present tense (presente):

O comboio deve chegar às 6 da tarde.
The train should arrive at 6 pm.

A Paula deve ir embora amanhã à tarde.
Paula should leave tomorrow afternoon.

Dever > not as it should 

Finally, we use should to say that something is not quite right. In this case, we’re going to be using dever in the imperfect tense (pretérito imperfeito):

Este preço está errado. Deviam ser 23$.
This price tag is wrong. It should be 23$.

Onde está o Pedro? Ele já deviaestar.
Where’s Pedro? He should be here by now.

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