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Portuguese Object Pronouns – Direct and Indirect Pronouns

You’ve probably noticed that Portuguese verbs are often surrounded by little words like lhe, te or nos. Those are object pronouns just like him, you or us in English.

Simply put, object pronouns go along with verbs to indicate to whom or to what the action refers. 

Now, there are two kinds of object pronouns: direct and indirect pronouns. While the former concerns the direct object, the latter concerns the indirect object (we’ll soon see what these are exactly).

As far as my teaching experience goes, language learners often confuse direct with indirect object pronouns. Another common issue concerns their placement as students seem to have trouble knowing if they should place object pronouns before or after the verb.

In what follows, I will introduce and explain Portuguese direct and indirect object pronouns as well as the principles guiding their placement in the sentence. 

Let’s then jump right into it.

Portuguese object pronouns: getting to know them

Direct vs indirect object: what’s the difference?

Object pronouns are personal pronouns used to replace either the direct or indirect object of a verb. I know what are you thinking: What the heck does that mean?

Fair enough. Let’s look at this sentence:

O Joel deu uma flor à Isabel.
Joel gave Isabel a flower.

Breaking down the above sentence into its basic syntactic units we have: 

SubjectJoel
Verb (action)deu (verbo dar)
Direct objecta flor
Indirect objectà Isabel

You can look at the direct object as the what or who the subject “directly” acts upon, and at the indirect object as the recipient of the action. 

Here’s another way to tell one from the other: the direct object is normally introduced by an article or determiner – uma flor – whereas the indirect object is typically preceded by a preposition – à Isabel

Now that you are more familiarised with the concepts of direct and indirect objects, it’s time to look into the pronouns themselves.

Direct vs indirect object pronouns

Look at these two variants of the above sentence:

(1) O Joel deu-a à Isabel.
Joel gave it to Isabel.

(2) O Joel deu-lhe uma flor. 
Joel gave her a flower.

In the first sentence, the direct object, uma flor, is replaced by the direct object pronoun a. In the second, the indirect object is replaced by the indirect object pronoun lhe

Here are the Portuguese object pronouns, direct and indirect:  

SUBJECT PRONOUNSDIRECT OBJECT PRONOUNSINDIRECT OBJECT PRONOUNS
Eumeme
Tutete
Ele
Ela

lhe
Nósnosnos
Vocêsvosvos
Eles
Elas
os
as 
lhes

Note that, apart from the third person (singular and plural), Portuguese direct and indirect pronouns look the same. 

Also, the third person of the direct object pronouns has distinct forms to match the gender of the object they refer to. As a matter of fact, they even take alternative spellings in some situations. We will be looking into that in a while

For now, let’s briefly talk about the element in the sentence that object pronouns refer back to – the verb.

Verbs call to objects (or not)

Our sentence above – O Joel deu uma flor à Isabel – takes both a direct and an indirect object. But that’s not always the case. 

Whether a sentence takes both a direct and an indirect object, either one or the other, or none, depends on the verb of that sentence. In other words, a verb can call to both, one of them, or none.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Direct and indirect object

In the sentence below, the verb mostrar  calls to both direct and indirect objects:

A Susana mostra o seu carro novo ao seu amigo.
Susana shows her new car to her friend.

A Susana mostrao ao seu amigo.
Susana shows it to her friend.

A Susana mostralhe o seu carro.
Susana shows him her new car.

Direct object only

In the sentence below, the verb ler calls to the direct object only:

Leste as notícias?
Did you read the news?

Leste-as?
Did you read them?

Indirect object only

In the sentence below, the verb responder calls to the indirect object only:

Respondeste ao Simão
Did you answer Simão?

Respondeste-lhe.
Did you answer him?

None – intransitive verbs

In the sentence below, the verb sentar-se calls to no object:

Senta-te aqui.
Sit here.

Spelling modifications to direct object pronouns

There are a few situations where the third person (singular and plural) of the direct object pronouns shift into different forms. These alternative spellings reflect the spoken language and its connected speech. 

Speaking of Connected Speech! I’ve got something that will make it easier for you to listen and speak to Portuguese native speakers.

-lo, -la, -los, -las

If the verb form ends in -r, -s or -z, these endings fall out and the pronouns -o, -a, -os, -as will shift to -lo, -la, -los -las:

-r
Vamos abrir as prendas?
Shall we open the presents?

Vamos abri-las?
Shall we open them?

-s
Comes sempre a sopa no final.
You always eat the soup at the end.

Come-la sempre no final.
You always eat it at the end.

-z
Diz o que pensas.
Say what you think.

Di-lo.
Say it.

Here are a couple of exceptions: 

Ele quer o reembolso.
He wants the money back.

Ele querelo.
He wants it back.


Tens a carteira contigo?
Do you have your wallet with you?

Temla contigo?
Do you have it with you?

Note that if the verb form ends in -ar or -az, then, a will take an acute accent to maintain the open sound of the vowel:

ar
Podes barrar a manteiga
Could you spread the butter?

Podes barrála?
Could you spread it?

az
Faz os deveres de casa!
Do your homework!

Fálos!
Do it!

Analogously, if the verb form ends in -er or -ez, then, e will take a circumflex accent to maintain the closed sound of the vowel:

-er
Vamos beber um vinho tinto?
Shall we drink some red wine?

Vamos bebêlo?
Shall we drink it?

ez
O Ricardo fez uma omolete.
Ricardo cooked an omelet.

O Ricardo fêla.
Ricardo cooked it.

-no, -na, -nos, -nas 

If the verb form ends with a nasal sound – most often with the nasal consonant -m, or the diphthongs -ão and -õe –  the pronouns -o, -a, -os, -as change into -no, na, nos, nas:

-m *
Eles desligaram os telemóveis.
They switched off their mobiles.

Eles desligaram-nos.
They switched them off.

-ão
Eles dão os livros de volta.
They give back the books.

Os alunos dão-nos de volta.
They give them back.

-õe
Ela põe as compras na mesa.
She puts the groceries on the table.

Ela põe-nas na mesa.
She puts them on the table.

* The third person plural of verbs often ends in -m

Contraction of the direct and indirect object pronouns

Sentences taking both direct and indirect objects can be rewritten with a single contracted form incorporating both object pronouns. In that case, the indirect object pronoun precedes the direct object pronoun:

me + omo
me + ama
me + osmos
me + asmas
te + oto
te + ata
te + ostos
te + astas
lhe + olho
lhe + alha
lhe + oslhos
lhe + aslhas

Here’re a few examples with the verb dar*:

Ele deu-me um abraço.
He gave me a hug.

Ele deu-mo.


Eu dei-te uma prenda.
I gave you a gift.

Eu dei-ta.


Tu deste-lhe os livros.
You gave her the books.

Tu deste-lhos.

* By the way, there’s so much you can say with this verb! Here’s a reading suggestion for you: The Portuguese Verb “Dar”: Usage and Idiomatic Expressions.

Portuguese object pronouns: placement and word order

Sometimes Portuguese object pronouns follow the verb form. At other times, however, they precede it. Language learners often struggle to wrap their heads around this shifting word order.

But fear not. Their placement is not arbitrary. There are clear principles* guiding where to put the object pronouns in relation to the verb. Also, these principles apply to direct and indirect object pronouns alike. 

*As a matter of fact, those principles also apply to reflexive pronouns. Here’s an article for you in case you want to learn more about reflexive verbs:  Portuguese Reflexive Verbs and Reflexive Pronoun Placement.

Single verbs

In sentences taking only one verb, object pronouns are placed after the verb and linked to it by a hyphen:

Envio uma carta ao Sérgio.
I send a letter to Sérgio.

Envio-a ao Sérgio.
I send it to Sérgio

Envio-lhe uma carta
I send him a letter.

Envio-lha.
I send it to him.

However, there are a number of cases where the object pronoun and the verb shift positions (in that case, there’s no hyphen between the two). 

Accordingly, the reversed word order takes place when the verb is preceded by either (1) negative words (negative sentences), (2) question words (interrogative sentences), (3) subordinating conjunctions and prepositions, (4) adverbs, or (5) indefinite pronouns/determiners:

1. Negative wordsnão, nunca, ninguém, nehum, nada, jamais
2. Question wordso que, porque, quanto/a(s), quando, qual/quais , onde, quem
3. Subordinate conjunctions and prepositionsque, para, por, porque, se, como, em, de, conforme, etc.
4. Adverbsainda, , tudo, sempre, também, talvez, pouco, bastante, muito, tanto, tão, só, lá etc.
5. Indefinite pronouns/determinerstudo, todo/a(s), bastantes, muito/a(s), pouco/a(s), alguém, algo, etc.

Let’s look at a few examples regarding each of the five groups above.

1. Negative words

Object pronouns precede the verb form in negative sentences:

Ele abraça o António
He hugs António. 

Ele abraça-o.
He hugs him.

BUT,

Ele não o abraça.
He doesn’t hug him.

Ele nunca o abraça.
He never hugs him.

2. Question words

Object pronouns precede the verb form in interrogative sentences introduced by a question word:

Deixei uma mensagem à Gabriela.
I left a message for Gabriela. 

Deixei-lhe uma mensagem.
I left her a message.

BUT,

Quando lhe deixaste a mensagem?
When did you leave her the message?

Porque lhe deixaste uma mensagem?
Why did you leave her a message?

3. Subordinate conjunctions and prepositions

Object pronouns precede the verb form when the latter is introduced by a subordinating conjunction or preposition:

Ele enganou a Catarina e o Jorge.
He tricked Catarina and Jorge.

Ele enganou-os.
He tricked them.

BUT,

Eu penso que ele os enganou.
I think that he tricked them.

Não sei como ele os enganou.
I don’t know how he tricked them.

4. Adverbs

Object pronouns precede the verb form when the latter follows certain adverbs:

O Rui contou à Ana que está apaixonado 
Rui told Ana that he’s in love. 

O Rui contou-lhe que está motivado. 
Rui told her that he’s in love.

BUT,

O Rui sempre lhe contou que está apaixonado.
At last, Rui told her that he’s in love.

O Rui também lhe contou que está apaixonado.
Rui also told her that he’s in love.

Note that the adverb sempre in the example above is equivalent to finally in English. Most of the time, however, sempre is used with the meaning of always and, in that case, comes after the verb (without causing any change in the word order):

O Rui conta-lhe sempre a mesma história.
Rui always tells her the same story.

5. Indefinite pronouns

Object pronouns precede the verb form when the latter follows an indefinite pronoun or determiner:

A Ana adora o Henrique
Ana really likes Henrique. 

A Ana adoro-o.
Ana really likes him.

BUT,

Muitas pessoas o adoram.
Lots of people really like him.

Alguém o ama.
Someone really likes him.

Future and conditional

In future and conditional tenses, object pronouns are normally placed between the stem and the ending of the verb form with all parts separated by hyphens.

Future tense

Ensinarei ao Miguel tudo o que aprendi.
I will teach Miguel all I’ve learned.

Ensinar-lhe-ei o tudo que aprendi.
I will teach him all I’ve learned.

Conditional

Doaria dinheiro se fosse rico.
I would donate money if I were rich.

Doar-lo-ia se fosse rico. 
I would donate it if I were rich.

Note that the examples above sound very formal. In everyday life, people would rather say something along the lines of: 

FUTURE EQUIVALENT (w/ the auxiliary verb ir)

Vou ensinar-lhe tudo o que aprendi.
I am going to teach him all I’ve learned.

CONDITIONAL EQUIVALENT (w/ the imperfect tense)

Doavao se fosse rico. 
I would donate it if I were rich.

Reading tips! Read the following article to become more at home with Portuguese verbs: Portuguese Verb Usage and Tenses: A Practical Guide Anchored to English.

Compound verbs

Auxiliary + main verb

When the main verb is preceded by an auxiliary verb – ir, começar, querer, poder, conseguir, estar, ajudar and costumar among others – object pronouns can be placed either (1) after the main verb, or (2) after the auxiliary (the latter sounds more colloquial). 

Here’s an example with the auxiliary verb ir:

Vou contar um segredo ao Manoel.
I will tell Manoel a secret.

(1) Vou contarlhe um segredo.
(2) Voulhe contar um segredo.
I will tell him a secret.

However, if the verbs are preceded by any of those words that we’ve covered above – question and negative words, as well as certain adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions, or pronouns – the object pronoun is best placed before the auxiliary verb:

Não lhe vou contar um segredo.
I am not going to tell him a secret.

Verb “ter” + main verb

In Portuguese, we use the verb ter to build perfect tenses, just the same way we use have in English.

In the case of Portuguese compound tenses, object pronouns follow the auxiliary ter, not the main verb:

Ela tinha escrito uma carta.
She  had written a letter.

Ela tinha-a escrito.
She  had written it.

Again, if the verbs are preceded by any of those words we mentioned above, the object pronoun is best placed before ter:

Ela nunca a tinha escrito.
She had never written it.

Brazilian Portuguese

The placement of object pronouns in Brazilian Portuguese is somewhat more flexible. There’s still a clear tendency to place the pronoun before the verb:

(pt) Ontem vi-te na rua.
(br) Ontem te vi na rua.
Yesterday I saw you outside.

(pt) Quero-te dizer uma coisa.
(br) Te quero dizer uma coisa.
I want to tell you something.

Reading tips! Learn more about how European and Brazilian Portuguese compare:  European vs. Brazilian Portuguese – How Different Are They, Really?

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