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Portuguese Tão vs. Tanto – What’s the Difference Exactly?

Portuguese language learners often struggle to distinguish between the adverbs tão and tanto. Are you one of them?

I totally get it! After all, both tão and tanto are modifiers used to intensify the meaning of other words. Also, both often give sentences a touch of unexpectedness, surprise, or excitement.

So, what’s the difference between tão and tanto?

Tão is used to intensify adjectives and other adverbs – it is the Portuguese equivalent of so. Tanto, on the other hand, is used to intensify verbs – it is the Portuguese equivalent of so much. 

Additionally, tanto is used as a noun quantifier – in that case, it agrees with the gender and number of the noun it refers to (it is variable). Depending on if it refers to countable or uncountable nouns, tanto is the Portuguese equivalent of either so many or so much respectively.

In what follows, I break it all down with concrete examples (keeping Portuguese and English side by side). 

Let’s jump right into it.

Tão

Tão is a modifier (an adverb of degree) and it is invariable – it is the Portuguese equivalent of so.

We place tão before adjectives and adverbs * to intensify them. It also gives the sentence an element of surprise or excitement. 

* Do you remember the difference between adjectives and adverbs?

Adjectives are words that modify and describe nouns  (e.g. pretty, silly, red, boring, slow, tall, etc.). 

Adverbs are words (or phrases) that modify and qualify adjectives, verbs, or other adverbs, expressing relations of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, and degree among others (e.g. quickly, fast, everywhere, early, enough, etc.).

Tão before adjectives

Take the following sentence: 

Ele é giro.
He’s cute.

And now the same sentence with tão  preceding and intensifying the adjective giro:

Ele é tão giro!
He’s so cute!

Tão before adverbs

The same applies to adverbs. Take the following sentence:

Tu conduzes depressa.
You drive fast.

And now the same sentence with tão preceding and intensifying the adverb depressa:

Tu conduzes  tão depressa!
You drive so fast!

Tanto

Tanto can be placed either after a verb (as an adverb) or before a noun (as a quantifier). In the first case, tanto is invariable while in the second, it agrees with the gender and number of the noun it refers to, thus variable

Let’s have a closer look at each of these situations.

Tanto after verbs – adverb (invariable)

After a verb, tanto is invariable and acts as a modifier intensifying the verb it points to (much like tão does in relation to adjectives and adverbs).

In this context, tanto  is equivalent to so much (even this much or that much):

Não devias * beber tanto.
You shouldn’t be drinking this much.

Nunca o tinha visto falar tanto!
I have never seen him speaking so much!

* Dever (devias) is equivalent to the modal verb should. Learn more about Portuguese modal verbs here:  Portuguese Equivalents of English Modal Verbs

Tanto before nouns – quantifier (variable)

Placed before a noun, tanto is a determiner/quantifier. In this case,  tanto is variable and agrees with the gender and number of the noun it refers to*:

Masc.Fem.English Equivalents
Sing.tantotantaso much
(uncountable nouns)
Plu.tantostantasso many
(countable nouns)

* Learn more gender and number in Portuguese:

1. Disentangling Gender with Portuguese Masculine-to-Feminine Spelling Patterns
2. Forming the Plural in Portuguese: Singular-to-Plural Conversion Patterns You Need to Care About

Uncountable nouns – tanto, tanta

The quantifiers tanto/tanta agree with the noun in gender and correspond to so much, that is, they apply to uncountable nouns (things that cannot be counted):

Não comas tanto pão. (o pão)
You eat so much bread.

Porque estás com tanta pressa? (a pressa)
Why are you rushing?

Countable nouns – tantos, tantas

Likewise, the quantifiers tantos/tantas also agree with the noun in gender, but they correspond to so many, that is, they apply to countable nouns (things that can be counted):

Porque compraste tantas batatas? (as batatas)
Why did you buy so many potatoes?

Tantos carros! (os carros)
So many cars!

From quantifier to pronoun

Note that we use tanto/tanta/tantos/tantos as indefinite pronouns when the nouns they refer to are implicit/omitted:

Ui, tanto?! (pão)
Gosh, so much?! (bread)

Porque compraste tantas? (batatas)
Why did you buy so many? (potatoes)

Idiomatic usage 

Here are a few common expressions using the words tantos/tantos:

Ele chegou a casa às tantas da madrugada.
He came home late in the wee hours.

Fiquei a trabalhar até às tantas da noite.
I stayed up working until late in the night.

Foi aos trinta e tantos anos que comecei a escrever. 
It was in my thirties that I started writing.

…  às tantas começou a chover. (past tense)
all of a sudden it started raining.

Às tantas começa a chover. (present tense)
It could start raining any time.

Converting tanto/a to tão (and vice-versa)

Often, sentences using the quantifier tanto/a can be rephrased to instead use tão (without any change in meaning) –  all it takes is to swap verbs and replace nouns with adjectives:

Ela tem tanta sorte!
Ela é tão sortuda!
She’s so lucky!

Tu tens tanto frio!
Tu és tão friorento!
You are so sensitive to cold!

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