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Portuguese Modal Verbs

Modal verbs help us convey things like necessity, possibility, certainty, doubt, and ability. We use them all the time.

You’d agree that the English sentences You must study more and You should study more imply different tones: the first conveys obligation, the second guidance/advice.

Like in English, Portuguese modal verbs refine our words making us sound 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, or May.

Can, on the other hand, might be expressed with the verbs Poder, Conseguir, or even Saber – it all hinges on the context and subtleties of tone.

Here’s a summary of the English Modals and their Portuguese counterparts. As you can see, this relation is far from being 1-to-1:

ENGLISH MODALSPORTUGUESE EQUIVALENTS
CanPoder, Conseguir, Dar
CouldPoder, Conseguir
Must/have toTer que, Precisar de, Poder, Dever
May/mightDever, Poder, (also the expressions talvez, se calhar)
ShouldDever

Let’s dive in.

Idiomatically Rich Verbs

Can

In English, the modal verb can is used to express possibility, permission, or ability. In Portuguese, we often use 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 are 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?
– Never mind, 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 few other ways to use it. Let’s take a closer look at it and find out its Portuguese equivalents.

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Olá! This is Pedro and I'm the founder of Portuguesepedia, a platform created to support and accelerate your Portuguese learning journey. Até já, p

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