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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?
Tãois 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 somuch.
Additionally, tantois 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 somuch respectively.
In what follows, I break it all down with concrete examples (keeping Portuguese and English side by side).
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 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!