Grammar Tips (#15): Personal pronouns (1): subject

The whole range of Portuguese subject personal pronouns (that is, that substitute the subject of the sentence) is as follows:

Person and Number Personal pronoun Special cases
1st person singular eu (I)
2nd person singular tu (you, informal)
3rd person singular ele (he) / ela (she) você (you, formal)

Other pronouns of treatment in the singular, like o senhor, a senhora, et. al.

a gente (we, very informal)

1st person plural nós (we)
2nd person plural vós (generally obsolete)
3rd person plural eles (they, masc.)

elas (they, fem.)

vocês (you [pl.], informal)

Other pronouns of treatment in the plural

This table highlights the grammatical positions personal pronouns should occupy given their etimology and early usage, i.e. which position a certain pronoun occupies for the purposes of verb conjugation.

As you can see by the special cases column, there are several 2nd person pronouns (você/vocês, all other pronouns of polite treatment) that should be accompanied by 3rd person verbs (and also 3rd person object pronouns, possessives*, etc.); this happens because pronouns of treatment, while addressing someone directly (a 2nd person in the conversation), use the 3rd person to imply a certain distance from the listener, whether by courtsey, respect, or simply due to rules associated with a position (examples in English are Your Highness, Your Majesty, etc.)


Note: Vocês is an exception to this rule; as you’ll see later on the posts regarding other personal pronouns, Vocês, while being conjugated with the 3rd person plural when a subject, has taken over the object and possessive pronouns that were once used with Vós [since it took over as the 2nd person plural pronoun].

#1: EP has a strong T-V distinction: in the singular, tu is an informal you, você is a formal you, and the other pronouns of treatment (o senhor, a senhora…) act as a formal/hyperformal you.

When addressing one person in EP, you have to be careful with the pronouns and/or verb tense you use to make sure you are treating them with politeness/respect:

  • If you’re talking to 1) a family member younger than you or around your age, 2) a partner/spouse or your children; 3) your parents, if you’re young (older people still address their parents with the 3rd person); 4) other people you feel you can informal with (friends, close coworkers), you’re free to talk to them using tu (or simply a verb in the 2nd person singular) 
  • If you’re talking to 1) older family members; 2) people you should have respect for and be polite to (the elderly, people you’ve just met, customers if you work in a service-oriented job, any hierarchical superiors you don’t feel comfortable treating informally), you should use either você (or simply a verb in the 3rd person singular, sans pronoun) or a pronoun of treatment in the singular, if so required.

#2: In EP, since the two different registers (formal and informal) are cleanly divided between two different grammatical persons, it’s possible to simply drop the personal pronoun altogether and still capture the T-V distinction using the verb forms alone.

  • [Tu] Gostas deste vestido? Do you like this dress? (verb gostar, 2nd person singular)
  • [Você] Gosta deste vestido? Do you like this dress? (verb gostar, 3rd person singular)

This means that the other, more specific pronouns of treatment only need to be used to either 1) address a specific person (especially in situations with people with different genders, or where a person needs to be call out by name); 2) show extra formality/respect/consideration for the other person.

  • O médico disse: “Senhor Estevão, faça o favor de entrar”. The doctor said: “Mr. Estevão [first name], please come in”.
  • A senhora Paula Vitorino está na sala? Is Ms. Paula Vitorino in the room?

Notes:

  • Portuguese isn’t very finicky regarding which names can be used after a pronoun of treatment; that said, using just the surname implies more formality (either among strangers or between people of different “ranks”), while using just given names implies politeness in a relationship with some degree of closeness (like a student towards a teacher, a doctor towards a patient and vice-versa).
  • In formal settings, unmarried men/women will also be called [o] senhor / [a] senhora respectively out of politeness; they are therefore not related to Ms./Mrs.

#3: The same thing can’t be said in the plural; vós is generally obsolete and should not be used at all (in Lisbon, at least), while vocês is an informal plural, i.e., for all intents and purposes, it works as the plural of tu.

Vós is still used as an informal plural you in some areas of Portugal (especially in Northern Portugal, in Minho, Douro and Beira Interior), but anywhere else – and especially in the south – it should be considered “archaic”; you don’t really need to learn it if you’re merely looking for conversational EP to use in big cities, but it won’t hurt being able to recognise it if you travel all over the country (especially to avoid misunderstandings). Its endings always end with -(ai/ei/i)s apart from the imperative.

To treat a group of people formally, you have use the pronouns of treatment – os senhores, as senhoras (in all verb moods but the imperative); in the imperative (which doesn’t have a subject per se), referring to said group with the verb in third person plural is enough to show politeness:

  • Façam o favor de vir comigo. Please come with me.

This is especially true when using forms of verbs that are used to express politeness in and of itself (fazer o favor de + infinitive is one such example).

#4: A gente is a very informal form of we; it’s less used in Portugal than in Brazil, so you can avoid it altogether and still be understood.

A gente never reaches any degrees of formal discourse in EP (for example, it’s not something you’d hear from a politician), being therefore confined to popular speech, and even so with less preponderance than nós.

It’s important you understand it (the fact that it is conjugated with the 3rd person singular, but acting as 1st person plural pronoun) just in case you hear someone use it, but it’s not as relevant or common as nós.

Note: An altogether different use of a gente is in toda a gente (EP for everybody); this one is the most common way of refering to a group of people in general terms (just like everybody in English). Todos nós is also a part of the language, but it refers to a group of people of which the speaker is also a part of (in English, we all or all of us).

  • Toda a gente gosta de piza. Everybody likes pizza.
  • Demos todos dez euros para comprar-lhe uma prenda. We all gave [pitched in] ten euros to buy him a present.

Other articles on this series:

 

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