Who’s afraid of Portuguese verbs? The first steps to fluency

mcall smith PIRPortuguese verbs have a fearsome reputation. The witty novelist Alexander McCall Smith wrote a short novel called Portuguese Irregular Verbs, a comedy about a well-meaning but mediocre German professor, Dr von Ingelfeld, who had spent his whole academic life studying Portuguese irregular verbs and felt that his efforts and expertise were not given due recognition. Surely he deserved a Nobel Prize at least! With a title like that, that novel was never destined to be a best-seller, but it did have interesting chapter titles, including “Duels, And How to Fight Them” and “Early Irish Pornography”. McCall Smith kept Dr von Ingelfeld going in two sequels, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs and At The Villa of Reduced Circumstances, and all three books were later collated into a collection entitled The 2½ Pillars of Wisdom. Which just goes to show that a lifelong quest to conquer Portuguese verbs can’t be that bad after all.

Portuguese verbs can appear complicated but once you find the right way to go about learning them, it is possible to make progress. No matter how good your vocabulary is with nouns and infinitives, you can’t get going in any language until you can use verbs.

Like many Romance languages, Portuguese verbs require conjugation – the change comes in the word endings – and you just have to learn the endings by heart. But the good news is that in modern Portuguese, for each tense there are only four or five endings that you have to learn – depending on whether you include the “tu” subject pronoun or not. Tu means “you” (singular) but is used mainly in European Portuguese in very familiar relationships – with close friends and lovers, and so on. It is rarely used in Brazil, where the other singular “you” – você – is common, and você very conveniently takes the same verb endings as the third person singular ele and ela (he, she). The very formal ways of saying “you” singular, o senhor to a man and a senhora to a woman, also take the você/ele/ela endings, ditto for the plural forms.

So, the first thing you have to decide is: do you set out to learn the five verb endings typically used in Portugal, or the four verb endings typically used in Brazil? If your ambition in life is to holiday or live in Brazil but never in Portugal, then just opt for the four endings. Being lazy and keen on short cuts, that’s what I did initially. But afterwards I regretted it and had to backtrack and learn the “tu” forms, because they are used quite a lot in Portuguese love songs, films etc; and because if you develop an interest in the language you will probably want to go to Portugal or other Portuguese-speaking countries anyway.

We won’t deal with irregular verbs in this post, just regular ones in the present tense only, to illustrate the learning process.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

There are three sets of regular verbs in Portuguese

  1. those ending in ar, for example, falar, to speak
  2. those ending in er, for example, comer, to eat
  3. those ending in ir, for example, partir, to leave

To conjugate the verbs, you drop the ar, er and ir to get the verb stems – in these examples, the stems are fal, com, part – then add the appropriate endings to the stems.

1) Let’s conjugate the ar verb to see the verb endings, present tense

  • eu falo – I speak
  • tu falas – you (singular, familiar) speak
  • você/ele/ela fala – you (singular) speak, he speaks, she speaks
  • nós falamos – we speak
  • vocês/eles/elas falam – you (plural) speak, they speak

So, to learn the verb, this is what you have to memorise

  • Brazilian Portuguese: falo, fala, falamos, falam
  • European Portuguese: falo, falas, fala, falamos, falam

2) The five endings for er verbs are: -o, -es, -e, -emos, -em. So to conjugate comer, this is all you have to learn

  • Brazilian Portuguese: como, come, comemos, comem
  • European Portuguese: como, comes, come, comemos, comem

3) The five endings for ir verbs are exactly the same as for -er verbs except in the first person plural, where emos becomes imos: -o, -es, -e, -imos, -em. So to conjugate partir, this is what you have to learn

  • Brazilian Portuguese: parto, parte, partimos, partem
  • European Portuguese: parto, partes, parte, partimos, partem

There are other points to note that will simplify the learning process.

  • For all verbs in Portuguese in the present tense, except for six, the first person singular (“eu“) verb ending is always -o. The six exceptions are: sou and estou (I am), vou (I go), dou (I give), sei (I know) and hei (I have).
  • Likewise, for all verbs in Portuguese in the present tense, except for five, the “vocês/eles/elas” verb ending is either -am or -em. The five exceptions are: são and estão (you plural and they are), vão (you/they go), dão (you/they give), and hão (you/they have).
  • For all verbs in Portuguese, in any tense, the first person plural (‘nós‘) ending is always -mos.
  • As noted above, the only difference between er and ir verbs is the -emos/-imos in the first person plural.

Bernardo’s learning method: Whenever I would go swimming (my main form of exercise), to the rhythm of a word for each freestyle arm stroke I would chant the following: falo, fala, falamos, falam, como, come, comemos, comem, parto, parte, partimos, partem... I usually used the four-word sequence rather than the five-word one (I prefer even numbers to odd) remembering that in the present tense, the tu ending is formed simply by adding an s to the second word in each sequence: fala(s), come(s), parte(s). Easy!😀

tile-214364_640However, although the four-word sequence was relatively easy to memorise, when it came to having a real conversation in Portuguese, I found that using one of the verb endings out of sequence was initially quite difficult. For example, if I wanted to say “we are speaking” my brain would have to go “falo, fala” first before allowing “falamos” to come to the fore. To counter this, you have to jumble up the sequence every now and then, giving yourself random bits in English to translate (for example: he is speaking – fala; they speak – falam; we speak – falamos; etc), or going through the sequence backwards: falam, falamos, fala, falas, falo.

When you can think of the right ending for the situation promptly every time, then you have mastered the present tense, and are ready to boldly go on to tackle the future, conditional, imperfect, past, subjunctive, imperative and all the irregular verbs and the so-called radical-changing verbs. How much time do you have, haha!

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9 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of Portuguese verbs? The first steps to fluency

  1. Verbs are my nemesis. How do you cope with five Romance languages, when the verbs are all so similar but crucially different?! I’m only dealing with two, and it’s causing me havoc.

    • Hi, you are right, it’s almost impossible to cope. I thought the similarities would make the learning easier, but they are more likely to muddle. Maybe it is easier to learn languages that are vastly different from one another?

      • I’d love to give Japanese another go, and partly for THAT reason! However, I can’t really afford to travel there, at least not on a regular basis, which makes it kinda non-viable.

        But, anyway, I’m not giving up on the Portuguese. Now, if only I could remember how to conjugate ‘vir’ and ‘ver’… sigh.

      • Haha, yes, ver and vir …. that’s a good one… they are pretty easy to distinguish in the future and conditional tenses, but in the present, past and imperfect! To complicate things, in many tenses vir is conjugated in a similar manner to ter, whereas you would think ter and ver would be.

  2. Glad I stumbled through your blog🙂 this is a really helpful explanation and hits all of my learning buttons. I’ve had this explained in a classroom and in a book, but yours is the clearest – I feel like it maybe be possible to eventually get a sentence from my random Portuguese words now🙂 muito obrigada, o señor

    • Hi there, ola, thanks for stumbling on my blog, and for your comments. Good luck with your studies, and I am glad you found my post helpful (looking at it now I think it was very long! But hopefully not too long-winded). I think you are doing well to tackle verbs full-on early in the learning process – I sort of avoided it initially because the verbs seemed too hard, I knew the infinitives but not how to conjugate. And then I couldn’t say anything. If you are in London at least you are near to Portugal (much nearer than I am here in Australia) so I hope you get the chance to practise in Lisbon and Porto. I shall follow your progress on your blog. Ate logo!

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