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Portuguese Grammar Compared to English

As you start your Portuguese learning journey, you might wonder about how different Portuguese grammar is from its English counterpart.

Portuguese and English grammars are fairly relatable since both languages belong to the Indo-European family. As such, they share many grammatical features, namely, their basic syntax and word order. 

However, since Portuguese and English belong to separate branches within the Indo-European languages – Portuguese is a Romance language, whereas English is part of the Germanic-languages subfamily – their grammars differ in several other aspects.

In what follows, I will walk you through some of the similarities and differences between Portuguese and English grammar.

Let’s get started.

Reading tips! Here’s another introductory overview of Portuguese grammar worth glancing at: Dabbling in Portuguese Grammar – First Impressions for Beginners.

Is Portuguese a difficult language to learn?  

The way you will experience Portuguese hinges to a great extent on what your first language is.

For instance, according to the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), Portuguese is – along with Spanish, Italian, and Dutch – one of the easiest languages to learn for English native speakers. Lucky you if English is your mother tongue!

How challenging Portuguese comes across also depends on if you speak or have learned any other Romance language in the past.

If you’re not familiarised with Romance languages at all, then Portuguese grammar might appear somewhat intricate.

Conversely, if your mother tongue is a Romance language, or if you at least are acquainted with any other language of this subfamily, you will certainly feel much more at home with it. 

Now, compared to English, Portuguese grammar has a few features that make it seem a little convoluted. 

Say gender, for example. You have to mind which nouns are masculine and feminine and make sure that pronouns, articles, and adjectives’ endings agree with it.

Also, when it comes to verbs, there’re way more conjugations and endings to keep track of in Portuguese than in English.

At this point, you might be tempted to conclude that Portuguese grammar won’t be a walk in the park. Well, again, whether or not that’s the case will depend on your mother tongue. 

One thing is for sure, learning a new language as an adult, no matter which one, will always be challenging (in the most positive, interesting, and compelling way).

Reading tips! If you are into studying and drilling grammar, here’s some advice on competent Portuguese textbooks: Textbooks for Portuguese Language Learners that Are Actually Worth Buying.

Common features

Both Portuguese and English originate from the same large language family: the Indo-European languages. As such, both tongues share much in common, even if their similarities are not that apparent to many of us.  

SVO-languages

Portuguese and English are SVO languages (SVO stands for Subject-Verb-Object). Let’s look at a simple example:

S > V >O
O Pedro comprou um carro.
Peter bought a car.

In the sentences above, (S) Peter/Pedro is the subject, (V) bought/comprou the verb, and (O) car/carro the object. As you can see, either language follows the same word order.

Granted, you’ll find on either side sentence constructions that won’t conform with this SVO sequence. Nonetheless, SVO word-order is what you get by default.

Grammar terminology

If you are familiar with the different word classes in English, then you’ll feel comfortable learning Portuguese grammar. In general, both languages use similar terminology and conceptualize grammar and syntax the same way. 

In Portuguese, as in English, most of the words fall into 4 word classes: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

These are also called “open” classes since there’s a constant flux of new words coming in and old ones dying out and leaving the “club” as time goes by.

Similarly, both languages share the same “closed” word classes (also known as “function words”), namely articles, prepositions, pronouns, numerals, and conjunctions.

Speaking of function words! Here are a few articles worth glancing at:
Portuguese Conjunctions: A Practical Guide Anchored to English
Portuguese Prepositions “Para” vs. “A”: Know When to Use Either
Portuguese Demonstrative Pronouns and Determiners

S-plural

By default, both English and Portuguese form the plural by adding an -s at the end of nouns, the so-called s-plural.

Now, there are more exceptions to this pattern in Portuguese than in English. Still, it is by far the dominant pattern.

Further reading! Here’s something you can read if you want to delve into this topic: Forming the Plural in Portuguese: Singular-to-Plural Conversion Patterns you Need to Care About.

Distinct features

Verb system

The Portuguese verb system is more nuanced and intricate than the English. For instance, there are ostensibly more conjugation endings and verb forms to keep track of in Portuguese. Take ter (have) as an example:

TerHave
Eu (I)tenhohave
Tu (you)tenshave
Ele, ela (he, she)temhas
Nós (we)temoshave
Vocês (you)têmhave
Eles, elas (they)têmhaev

Further reading! Here’s a side-by-side Portuguese-English comparison: Portuguese Verb Tenses and Moods Explained: A Usage Rundown Anchored to English.

What’s more, in Portuguese, you can express different time-flow qualities by tweaking between different so-called verb aspects within a tense.

In English, however, the expression of different time-flow qualities is not marked with different verb aspects. Instead, it is left to either the context or rephrasing. 

Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples:

(1)
Hoje, a Joana comeu o almoço às 13h.
Today, Joana ate lunch at 1 pm.

(2)
Antigamente, a Joana comia o almoço às 13h.
Before, Joana used to eat lunch at 1 pm.

Both sentences above relate to the past tense. However, they express different time-flow qualities – the first one denotes a single, completed action, whereas the second implies continuity and repetition (something used to be/happen in a certain way).

In Portuguese, by only replacing “comeu” with “comia” – different verb aspects of the same verb (preterite vs. imperfect) – we go from expressing a punctual and complete past action to imply a repetitive and durable one.

In English, however, we need to rephrase it into a compound verb structure (auxiliary + main verb) to go from the first to the second situation.

Further reading! Learn more about preterite vs. imperfect time-flow quality and usage: Portuguese Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense: Know When to Use Which.

Subjunctive mood 

The subjunctive mood is used to express desire or something hypothetical or uncertain. 

In English, the subjunctive verb forms have over time been made identical to those of the indicative mood.

Accordingly, the use of the subjunctive is hardly perceptible in modern English, so much so that most native speakers are not even aware of it.

For instance, take the sentence I suggest you go home. That verb go is indeed in the subjunctive mood.

Conversely, in Portuguese, as in other Romance languages, the subjunctive mood continues to look and sound distinct.

Here’s an example

Se tivesse mais dinheiro viajava mais vezes.
If I had more money I would travel more often.

In the sentence above, tivesse (verb ter) is in the subjunctive mood (pretérito imperfeito).

Further reading! We have 3 different tenses within the subjunctive mood. Start here: Present Subjunctive in Portuguese: How and When to Use It.

Possession markers (genitive case)

English and Portuguese use a reversed word order to indicate possession as illustrated next:

O carro da Sara. (~ the car belonging to Sara)
Sara’s car.

Notice that we use a preposition – de – to indicate possession (placed in between the possessed thing and the possessor).

Reading tips! Learn more about the preposition de: Portuguese Preposition “De”: A Usage Guide.

Definite articles and possessive pronouns

In Portuguese, and contrary to English, possessive pronouns are normally preceded by a definite article:

A minha casa é branca.
My house is white.

O meu casaco is castanho escuro.
My jacket is dark brown.

The same happens with proper nouns:: 

A Joana ficou em casa.
Joana stayed home.

Olá, eu sou o Ricardo.
Hi, I’m Ricardo.

Reading tips! Learn more about Portuguese possessive pronouns: Portuguese Possessive Pronouns and Adjectives.

Prepositional contractions

Portuguese prepositions often contract with other words, namely articles. A few examples:

Preposition “a”

Eu vou ao cinema. (ao= a + o cinema)
I am going to the cinema. 

Preposition “de”

Eu venho da cidade. (da= de +a cidade)
I come from the city. 

Preposition “em”

Ela está no quarto de banho. (no = em + o quarto de banho)
She is in the bathroom.

Further reading! Here’s a comprehensive guide to prepositions and their contractions: Basic Portuguese Prepositions and Contractions: An Inclusive Usage Rundown.

Omitted and null subjects 

In Portuguese, it is very common to leave out the subject in sentences. Since there is a verb form for each person, the latter is then implicit in the former:

(Eu) Gosto de música > I like music
(Tu) Gostas de música > You like music

In the examples above, the English sentences need to make the subject explicit (I, you) so that you know who likes music.

The Portuguese sentences, on the other hand, do well without the subject (eu, tu) as it is already implied in the distinct verb forms.

Also, you often leave out the subject when the same is impersonal or generic:

(As pessoas) dizem que os eventos climáticos extremos vão ter maior frequência no futuro.
People say that extreme weather events will be more frequent in the future.

Finally, in Portuguese, there isn’t any corresponding pronoun to it. Those sentences that in English start with it take no subject in Portuguese:

Está a chover!
It is raining!

Não é justo!
It is not fair!

Gender 

Portuguese, like other Romance languages, is a gender-entangled language. See, gendered nouns (either feminine or masculine) send out ripples all across the language.

For instance, other word classes such as pronouns, adjectives, and articles will have their endings inflected accordingly. This is easily illustrated with an example:

(1) A minha cadeira é vermelha. (cadeira is feminine)
(2) O meu carro é vermelho. (carro is masculine)

(1) My chair is red.
(2) My car is red.

As you see above, only the verb (é) is kept unchanged. Otherwise, all other words adjust to the gender of the noun they refer to.

Further reading! Learn more about the Portuguese gender-tangle: Gender of Portuguese Words: A Guide to Masculine-to-Feminine Spelling Patterns.

Two to be verbs

Portuguese, like several other Romance languages, has two verbs for the English verb to be: ser and estar.

So, what’s the difference between the two? 

In general, we use ser and estar to refer to permanent and temporary states respectively. Let’s take an example:

Permanent state

Tu és uma pessoa alegre. (ser)
You are a happy person.

Temporary state

Tu hoje estás alegre. (estar)
You are happy today.

Further reading! Because of contextual nuances and subtleties, it’s not always obvious when to use one or the other. Learn more about it: Portuguese Verbs ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar’- How and When to Use Either.

Diminutive/augmentative

The use of the diminutive and augmentative in Portuguese is commonplace. We use these not only hint at size but also as a form of endearment or even deprecation (when used with irony). 

The most common way to build diminutives is to change the nouns’ endings to inho:

Que gatinho bonito! (gato)
What a cute little cat!

Onde está o nosso Joãozinho? (João)
Where is our little John?

Conversely, we often use the suffix ão to build the augmentative:

Que tigrão! (tigre)
What a big tiger!

No auxiliary verb in yes-or-no questions

In Portuguese, yes-or-no questions have exactly the same word order as declarative sentences. What differs is the intonation.

In English, on the other side, yes-or-no questions are often formulated with the auxiliary verb to do:

(1) Gostas gelado?
(2) Gostas de gelado.

(1) Do you like ice cream?
(2) You like ice cream.

Reading tips! Learn more about Portuguese questions and interrogatives: Asking Questions in Portuguese: Question Words and Beyond

Do you have to study Portuguese grammar to learn the language?

The answer is, not necessarily. Whether or not you spend much of your time studying and drilling Portuguese grammar depends on your learning style.

Many students learn Portuguese more organically by engaging with reading and listening materials, and by daring to speak in their target language from day one. I personally fall for this approach. 

There are, on the other hand, language learners that are keen to understand the rules “governing” Portuguese. That’s fine too, as long as you don’t overdo it and neglect the much-needed exposure to the living-and-breathing language.

See, while grammar certainly has its place in language learning, it can too, when overdosed, harm your ability to communicate, namely by making you self-conscious and insecure when you are speaking in Portuguese.

Above all, this doesn’t need to be an either-or-not thing.

As a language learner, you’ll probably find yourself somewhere along a nerdy-grammar vs. all-organic spectrum – tune into the mix that works best for you at any given time (yes, it is natural for this grammar-organic balance to change over time. It can go in periods).

! Refer to these reads for further guidance:

Mindsets and Strategies to Learn Portuguese the Best (inspirational)
Here’s How to Push Through and Improve Your Portuguese Speaking Skills (inspirational)
Online Portuguese Learning Resources That are Actually Worth Your Time (resources)

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