When you are starting out with Brazilian Portuguese, it is satisfying enough to be able to make a simple, complete sentence in which someone (noun) does something (verb).
A Bruna acendeu a caixa de som. — Bruna turned on the stereo.
Here we have Bruna as our noun, and she verbed up the TV.
Fair enough. But as you move into expressing more complex ideas in Portuguese, you may sometimes have good reason to forgo that formula, and not worry so much about who is doing the verbing.
You might do this for reasons of style and emphasis, or it might just be because you have no idea who turned the dang stereo on.
A caixa de som tinha sido acendida. — The stereo had been turned on.
This is called the passive voice and there are a few ways to form it in Portuguese, which we will discuss in this post.
Getting Started with the Portuguese Passive Voice
It is not a super-advanced topic, but, ideally, you should have already had some dealings with the Portuguese present tense, adjectives, past participles, reflexive verbs and infinitives. These topics are often covered fairly early in Brazilian Portuguese learning courses. If you are learning on your own, one book I recommend that handles the grammar well is “Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar.”
Some of the examples I will cover here are not “passive voice” in the eyes of the pickiest grammarians or linguists, but the idea of this article is to generally cover ways of being impersonal or imprecise about the cause of the action. We will be in passive voice or passive-ish voice land.
Also, as in English, the passive voice can be overused in Portuguese in wordy, obnoxiously vague writing, such as in the sentence you are reading right now, although for reasons of timidity, the culprits of this kind of writing shall not be named, even though certain ones are practically begging to be called out (ahem… academics!).
But there are plenty of productive uses for the passive voice and passive-voice-like constructions, and we will cover those here, starting with the most practical.
In fact, if you watch a few authentic videos in Portuguese like the ones on FluentU, you are sure to come across the passive voice. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It is a great way to hear real Portuguese, as native speakers use it.
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Using Passive Voice in Brazilian Portuguese
Using Past Participles to Create the Portuguese Passive Voice
Certain past tenses you may have studied use the past participle. Its regular verb endings are –ado for –ar verbs and –ido for –er and –ir verbs.
In some past tenses it is used with conjugations of ter (or haver in writing), but it can also be used to create passive voice constructions. When used in this way, you will need to modify the participle for gender and number as you do with Portuguese adjectives (so you will also use the endings –ada, -ados, -adas; -ida, -idos and -idas).
Here are two examples of this in use:
A Bruna é admirada no mundo do samba de gafieira. — Bruna is admired in the world of samba de gafieira. (Incidentally, this is the classier, more dynamic Brazilian cousin to tango.)
A moqueca de peixe foi toda comida nas duas horas que estivemos fora. — The fish stew was completely eaten up in the two hours that we were out.
In the first sentence, the past participle is coupled with the verb ser in the present, while the second sentence uses the preterite.
There are also some irregular past participles that do not follow this pattern of –ado or –ido endings. Here are some of the most common:
abrir → aberto — opened
cobrir → coberto — covered
escrever → escrito — written
dizer → dito — said
fazer → feito — done
ver → visto — seen
vir → vindo — come
Note that compounds of these verbs use similar endings. For example, satisfazer becomes satisfeito (satisfied).
There are also lots of verbs with two different past participles, one regular and one irregular. Here are some common examples, though there are many more:
aceitar → aceitado, aceito — accepted
acender → acendido, aceso — turned on
entregar → entregado, entregue — turned in, handed over, delivered
expressar → expressado, expresso — expressed
matar → matado, morto — dead
Which of these two participles you use can be a subject of grammatical consternation for Brazilians. Generally, the long, regular form is used with the past tense forms involving ter (perfect tenses) whereas the shorter, irregular form is used in passive expressions or as an adjective.
But in the real world of spoken language, the rules sometimes get mixed up and both variations are common. The irregular forms can sound more erudite and in some cases get used for that effect, even with perfect tenses.
I have also sometimes been told the opposite, though, and learned folks and thick books seem to disagree about which of these are better used in general. Life is short and if Brazilians cannot make up their minds, we gringos should, in my opinion at least, not concern ourselves too much with this particular point. Personally, I would get to know both forms and use whatever sounds best to you in a given situation.
We used ser as our auxiliary verb in the examples at the beginning of this section, but if we want to emphasize the resultant state of affairs, we can use estar followed by the past participle, instead.
Quando encontramos o vaqueiro, já estava morto das suas mágoas. — When we found the cowboy, he was already dead from his sorrows.
Não precisamos cozinhar mais, pois está tudo feito. — We do not need to cook anymore; it is all done.
If you have spent any time chatting with Brazilians, you have probably already noted their lust for the verb ficar, which can also be combined with a past participle to show what became of things, or how things just seemed to end up.
A Bruna recebeu tantos comprimentos que ficou lisonjeada. — Bruna got so many compliments that she wound up feeling flattered.
Ficou mal feito. — It ended up being done poorly.
So to recap, use the following verbs with the past participle in these cases:
- Use ser when talking about an action done by some force that is not the subject of the sentence.
- Use estar when you want to emphasize the results of something.
- Use ficar to show things that just seemed to wind up in a certain way.
Using a + Infinitive for Subtle Bossiness
One weedling little way to be passively imprecise about who is doing what, and especially to indicate what you think ought to be done without outright saying so, is the construction a + infinitive.
Essas são as normas linguísticas a respeitar. — These are the linguistic rules to be respected.
Essa é o alto-falante a usar para escutar o samba rock. — This is the speaker to use for listening to samba rock. (If you do not know this style, imagine if James Brown grew up Brazilian and got a little samba in his jam.)
A saber, sou muito infiel. — One should know: I am very unfaithful.
It irks me when people use constructions like this in any language, but hey, my misanthropy is what allows me to hole up alone to write articles like these, chatting with my imaginary perfect interlocutor, myself.
Get Impersonal with Reflexive Verbs
You have likely already studied reflexive verbs (those coupled with se and its derivatives). They are learned as-is and generally refer to actions that one does to one’s own self in the Brazilian linguistic mindset. For example:
Cuide-se. — Take care [of yourself].
In formal writing and sometimes formal speech, the same reflexive pronouns are used with non-reflexive (intransitive) verbs to talk about what is done or ought to be done.
I am lodged at a beautiful little house in Olinda as I write this, with a sign in front that says “Vende-se.” This tells me that the place is eventually to be sold, though the sign’s use of the reflexive with a normally non-reflexive verb (vender — to sell) allows for ambiguity about who is doing the selling.
Here are more examples:
Não se deve ler as besteiras políticas compartilhadas no Whatsapp. — One should not read the political nonsense shared in Whatsapp.
Não se pode ser pontual nesse país. — One cannot arrive on time in this country.
Tende-se a gastar demais com pagamentos parcelados. — One tends to spend too much with payment by installments.
Since reflexive verbs themselves are slowly falling out of fashion in general in Brazilian Portuguese, and their passive-voice use is mainly written, this might not be the main focus of study for you if your goals center on oral communication. But it is important to at least recognize this use and its impersonal intent, as you will certainly hear and see it at some point.
The grammar constructions discussed in this post are best learned in separate study sessions. You will likely have encountered all of them to some extent before you actually sit down with the passive voice and pick apart the grammar.
Once you have done so, and have practiced writing such constructions out yourself with words and situations from your own life, you could schedule a one-on-one session with an online teacher or language exchange partner to correct your writing and practice orally employing them in conversation.
You can also check out more examples of passive constructions in Portuguese in action on Rio & learn or So Português (here is another So Português example).
Your focus as you practice these will necessarily be on impersonal things. The sentences you will create will be a great opportunity to let go, and stop thinking about yourself so much. Or blaming others, for that matter.
The point here is that things have been done, and now we can, for once, stop mulling over whodunnit.
Mose Hayward writes this while on the road in Brazil with a tiny portable Bluetooth speaker, ready to dance samba at any moment.
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