The whole range of Portuguese object (clitic) pronouns is as follows:
|Subject pronoun||Direct object pronoun||Indirect object pronoun|
|Ele / Você (if male)||o (lo, no)||lhe|
|Ela / Você (if female)||a (la, na)|
|Eles||os (los, nos)||lhes|
|Elas||as (las, nas)|
EP also has the particularity of allowing the merge of these two objects into a single pronoun; to learn more about it, you’ll have to read this whole article – or scroll down until you find it, even though I recommend you read everything that comes before first!
#1: It’s important to know the difference between direct and indirect object to get their usage right.
The object of a sentence is the person or thing which is affected by the action of the main verb. The direct object ([o] complemento dire[c]to in EP) implies a direct connection between the main verb and the person or thing affected by it, answering the questions “what?” or “whom?” – for example, “What have they cooked?” or “Whom did you call?”:
- Eles cozinharam borrego. Eles cozinharam-no. They cooked lamb. They cooked it. (direct object underlined)
- [Tu] ligaste ao Paulo. Tu ligaste-lhe. You called Paulo. You called him. (idem)
The indirect object implies a indirect connection between the verb and the recipient, which is mediated by the direct object. It answers the questions “to what?”, “to whom?”, and implies that the action of the verb affected a direct object which later imparted it to an indirect object (the easiest verb to understand this dynamic is to give, where the something you give is the direct object, while the person/thing who give it to is the indirect object):
- [Eu] dei-vos uma caixa de bombons. I gave you [pl.] a box of chocolates.
- [Nós] demos uma bola ao Miguel. [Nós] demos-lhe uma bola. We gave a ball to Michael. We gave a ball to Michael. We gave him a ball.
However, there are verbs which just beg for the indirect object, like falar [a] (to talk to).In Portuguese, this to is always translated with the preposition a, but it should never be used with the above indirect pronouns (which overwrite it).
#2: These clitic pronouns can appear before (proclitic), in the middle (mesoclitic) or after (enclitic) the verb.
As a rule, EP object pronouns are used standardly in enclitic positions (that is, that’s the bare form they assume unless there’s an added element in the sentence to change it). The mesoclitic forms are used in standard EP (although less commonly in day-to-day speech) with two verb tenses whose radical ends in -r¹ (the future indicative and the conditional), with the pronoun between the radical and the ending:
- [Eu] falar-vos-ei amanhã. I will speak to you tomorrow.
- Elas vê-la-iam na televisão no dia seguinte. They would see her on TV the following day.
The mesoclitic and enclitic uses of the pronouns require the clitics to be separated from the verbs with hyphens. These are also the only forms that require the special forms of the 3rd person direct object that show up under brackets (the mesoclitics require only the forms with l; see the explanation below as to why).
The proclitic forms are used when an element of the sentence demands it (usually a preceding adverb like não, nunca, or sempre [among others] or the insertion of the pronoun inside of a relative/subordinate clause).
¹ While other tenses end in -r, they are excluded from this rationale because they only follow proclisis triggers; the future subjunctive is present in subordinate clauses, while the personal infinitive is also used in relative clauses.
#3: Verb forms in the first person plural lose their -s when joined by an enclitic -vos or -nos.
- Nós damo-vos o prémio. We give you [pl]. the prize.
- Nós lavamo-nos. We wash ourselves.(reflexive verb + pronoun, see immediately below)
#4: This whole post does not include the special case of reflexive pronouns.
Reflexive pronouns are the object of reflexive verbs; that is, verbs where the subject is also the object of the verb’s action (something to do to yourself). Just to be clear, in English these pronouns are myself, yourself, himself, etc.
Although they only have minute differences from these object pronouns, I’ve decided to write a post covering just them, which will be #3 on this series about EP personal pronouns.
Direct Object Pronouns – issues and questions
#4: The 3rd person direct pronouns have three different forms for each gender and number: a pure one (o/a | os/as) and two inflected (lo/la | los/las; no/na | nos/nas).
This change is caused by the pronoun coming into contact with a preceding consonantal or nasal sound emanating from the verb stem. If the sound is a vowel, simply use the pure forms:
- [Eu] Amava-o muito. I loved him/it very much.
In all cases (with pure or inflected clitics), the ending is dictated by the gender of the word being substituted by the pronoun.
Lo/La | Los/Las
If the last sound before the enclitic is a consonant, substitute the consonant and use the forms with l (since the mesoclitics are triggered by two verb tenses with radicals ending in -r, the third person mesoclitic pronouns are always -lo/la/los/las).:
- [Tu] Amava-lo assim tanto? Did you love him that much?
Here, the form amavas lost its s in the process; in some situations (periphrastic/ modal verbs with main verbs of the first and second conjugations in the infinitive; mesoclisis of those same verbs in the future and conditional), you may also need to add an accent to the last vowel to maintain its sound before the change:
- [Ele] vai amá-lo para sempre. He will love him forever. Here, amar lost its r in the process of receiving an enclitic, but the language needed a device to make sure people pronounce the open a that existed in –ar before the change; incidentally, this also helps distinguish it from [ele/ela] ama, which has two different closed As (and wouldn’t fit here.
- [Tu] tê-lo-ás. You will/shall have it. (terás)
If the infinitive/verb radical ends in -ar (first conjugation), the verb form will end in -á; if the infinitive ends in -er (second conjugation), the verb form will end in -ê. Third conjugation verbs (ending in -ir) simply lose the r.
- Conhecê-lo é amá-lo. To know him is to love him. (Conhecer / Amar)
- [Tu] Vais tingi-la de azul. You will dye it [e.g. a shirt] blue. (Tingir)
No/Na | Nos/Nas
If the last sound before the enclitic is a nasal sound (verb forms ending in -am/em/êm/ão², that is, all third person plural verb forms and all third person singular forms except verbs from the first regular conjugation), use the forms with n.
- Elas amavam-no. They loved him.
- Eles partilharam-no. They shared it.
Pay attention to the fact that the clitic -nos is also used for the 1st person plural, so it may mean “us” or “them (masc.)” depending on the referent.
² -ão is also a final nasal sound, but it’s used primarily in the future indicative tense (a mesoclisis tense), so this rule doesn’t apply to it there (since the tense doesn’t allow enclitic pronouns). Exceptions include the irregular forms of the present indicative for the 3rd person plural of verbs like ser (são) and estar (estão), which can [in theory, at the least] be followed by an enclitic pronoun with -n.
Indirect Object Pronouns – issues and questions
#5: Unlike English, EP is not terribly fond of placing the indirect object before the direct object.
It’s possible to do so for style or emphasis, but the indirect object should always retain the proposition a (unlike English, which loses to when the indirect object directly follows the verb).
- Eu dei um coelho à Maria (common). I gave a rabbit to Maria / I gave Maria a rabbit.
- Eu dei à Maria um coelho (very, very rare). I gave Maria a rabbit.
Please never use the second option unless you’re writing a poem; the preferred order is always direct object+indirect object unless you turn the latter into a pronoun:
- Eu dei-lhe um coelho. I gave her a rabbit.
#6: It’s impossible to distinguish gender when it comes to the third person pronouns. –lhe can mean to him/to her and to you [formal] based on context.
With -lhes the issue is less problematic; you still can’t know the gender of the referent being substituted by the pronoun (which makes it an exact equivalent of to them); the hyperformal os senhores/as senhoras is retained when talking in that specific register
Whenever a verb that asks for both direct and indirect object is used (and they’re pointed out specifically, i.e. we’re aware of what/who they are), EP allows for the contraction of these two pronouns by adding the third person direct pronouns to the indirect object. The table that established these connections is as follows:
This only works when the direct object is in the third person; when it’s not, you have to separate the two.
- Eu dei um abraço ao Pedro. I gave Pedro a hug. but also
- Eu dei-lhe um abraço. I gave him a hug. but also
- Eu dei-lho. I have it [the hug] to him.
This merging is not generally used with –lhes to avoid confusion. When you have -lhes as your indirect object, you have to add the direct object after it.
- Nós demos-lhes um carro. We gave them a car.