Demystifying Present-tense Portuguese Irregular Verbs: Patterns in Irregularity
Are you struggling with irregular verbs? No matter how hard you try, can you simply not remember all the irregular verb conjugations in Brazilian Portuguese?
Sure, it’s rough. Verb conjugations in Romance languages are a rather arduir (to go)ous endeavor for English speakers because of all the wild irregularities.
Here’s the upside: For a basic level of communication in Brazilian Portuguese, you can get by with just three tenses. If you can handle the present, the imperfect and the preterite indicative, you should be able to get your point across in most contexts.
In this post, we’ll focus on the present, and specifically on the irregular verbs in the present.
This post isn’t for those just starting out with Portuguese, but it’s suitable for those who have been studying for a bit already and have some basic vocabulary and familiarity with the regular present tense conjugations.
For our examples here, we use the variety of Portuguese from the Brazilian states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, which is the focus for most learners of Brazilian Portuguese.
The Portuguese for other parts of the world won’t vary too much for this topic, with the addition of tu in some areas like Portugal and the very south of Brazil, plus quite different vocabulary in terms of example sentences in some of those dialects.
Having said all that, let’s make sense of some irregular Brazilian Portuguese verbs.
The Importance of Learning Portuguese Irregular Verbs in the Present Tense
If your goal is just basic communication, studying present-tense indicative irregular verbs can get you a nearly maximal bang for your grammar-study-time buck.
You’d certainly not want to spend your limited time with the future tense, which is rarely used in spoken Brazilian Portuguese; the concept of the future is more often expressed by the irregular present tense verb ir that we’ll see later in this article. And some perfect tense uses will make use of another irregular present tense verb that you’ll see here, ter.
So even for those planning to move on eventually to more advanced concepts, you really need to know the irregular present tense conjugations well because they can become the base for other tenses that you’ll learn later.
And finally, if you still need to be sold on this subject: The irregular present tense verbs became so irregular through heavy use—they’re contorted precisely because they’re generally the most common words in the language. Who wouldn’t want to know those?
Recap: Regular Brazilian Portuguese Verb Conjugations
I’m assuming here that you know these, but they’re absolutely essential for comparison to what’s about to come, so here’s a quick snapshot of the three regular conjugations in the present tense. (We’ll include the translations for the first example but omit them in later examples, as they’re self-explanatory.)
Verbs ending in –ar like comprar (to buy):
eu compro — I buy
você/ele/ela compra — you/he/she buys
nós compramos — we buy
vocês/eles/elas compram — you (plural)/they (male or mixed gender)/they (female) buy
Verbs ending in –er like beber (to drink):
Verbs ending in –ir like abrir (to open):
As always, the alternate first-person plural a gente (literally “the people,” but in this case “we”) takes the você/ele/ela endings.
Good so far? Hang on, things will get weirder—but I’ll start with the easy stuff.
Brazilian Portuguese Irregular Verb Patterns for Finding Order in the Chaos
Ever-so-slightly “Irregular” Present Tense Verbs: Spelling Changes
I might be exaggerating just a bit to use the word “irregular” here, but some verbs can look off-kilter to learners and don’t at first glance seem to be following the rules above.
Changing c to ç
In this next example, see if you can spot change as compared to regular conjugation spellings.
Conhecer (to know someone or about something):
See how the c became a ç in the eu form? In both cases, the c is pronounced like an s—in the infinitive conhecer that’s because the c is followed by an e that makes it all soft and hissy, and in the eu form it’s because of that tail-like cedilla hanging from its bottom.
If you were just to speak and never write Portuguese, you wouldn’t notice this irregularity at all, because conhecer when conjugated sounds just like any other -er verb. But to maintain the s sound in spelling, we need to change the c to a ç. Otherwise, we’d write a co at the end, and it would sound hard and weird and different from the infinitive, like a ku sound.
Changing g to j
Similarly, we need to change g to j sometimes with Portuguese verbs in order to preserve the soft g sound.
For example, dirigir (to drive) in its eu form does just that:
eu dirijo — I drive
We wouldn’t want to put go at the end of that conjugation, because the o would give it a hard sound. But in terms of just pronunciation, this could be seen as a regular verb conjugation.
The third major spelling change to be aware of is that sometimes a letter must drop out to maintain consistent pronunciation.
You might recall that sometimes a u slides in after a g to make the g hard, but the u itself isn’t pronounced. But we wouldn’t want to start pronouncing that u all of a sudden in conjugations where the hardness is already evident (because there’s an o after it, for example), so the u drops out.
This happens with conseguir (to obtain, to achieve):
eu consigo — I achieve
Notice that consigo also has a sneaky little stem change of e to i; we’ll cover that in the next section.
Here are some examples of the verbs we saw in this section, brought to life in full sentences:
Eu conheço todos os forrozeiros de Recife. — I know all of the forró dancers in Recife.
Eu dirijo um carro verde. — I drive a green car.
Eu nunca consigo fazer nada. — I never succeed in doing anything.
But enough of irregular-lite verbs. Let’s move on to some troublemakers.
Stem-Changing Verbs in Brazilian Portuguese
There’s a weakness in the hearts of some verbs. The stress (pronounced emphasis) falls on the last syllable of Portuguese infinitives, but in the conjugated eu form the stress falls on the next-to-last syllable. Sometimes, that stress can be too much—the vowel under stress ends up changing to something else.
This happens in fairly regular patterns with -ir verbs (and in less-remarked ways that aren’t spelled out in the written language with –ar and –er verbs, but learners shouldn’t dwell on that so much).
Here, we’ll cover some of the most common patterns.
Changing e to i
Some verbs stem vowels change from e to i, like in vestir (to dress):
Eu visto o meu filho de roupas roxas. — I dress my son in dark purple.
Recall that this stem change only happens in the eu form (at least of the present indicative, the verb tense we’re discussing here). There’s no change in the other present indicative forms:
Ele veste o seu filho de roupas roxas. — He dresses his son in dark purple.
Here’s another example with the verb mentir (to lie):
Eu não minto nunca; as pessoas confiam em mim. — I don’t ever lie; people trust me.
Or sentir (to feel), a verb that’s great for waxing romantic:
Eu sinto o calor do abraço do meu namorado como um quente raio de sol de verão na minha pele. — I feel the warmth of my boyfriend’s embrace like a warm ray of summer sun on my skin.
Other very common verbs that follow the above pattern include: digerir (to digest), preferir (to prefer), repetir (to repeat) and servir (to serve).
Changing o to u (and vice versa)
Similarly, sometimes stress causes an o to flip to a u in just the eu forms of –ir verbs.
For example, take the verb tossir (to cough):
Eu tusso quando estou resfriado. — I cough when I have a cold.
This also happens with the verbs dormir (to sleep), descubrir (to discover), engolir (to swallow) and more.
The reverse is also possible, with a u changing to an o in only the second- and third-person forms of the verb (but not the eu and nós forms).
So, for example, the verb fugir (to escape) has both this vowel change and the spelling change (j to g) discussed earlier.
Here’s an example of this in action:
Ele sempre foge do baile quando vê o seu ex ciumento. — He always escapes from the dance when he sees his jealous ex.
Other verbs with this u to o change in the second and third persons include: subir (to go up, to get on), sacudir (to shake, to boogie down) and sumir (to disappear).
Other stem changes
There are also stem-changing verbs that follow the above e to i and o to u patterns, but do so in all present tense conjugations where the stress falls on that vowel (that is, all conjugations except for the nós form).
This happens with everyone’s favorite carnival verb transgredir (to transgress):
Here’s an example:
Eu transgrido as normas dos bloggers em apresentar tanta informação de maneira tão animadora. — I transgress bloggers’ norms by presenting so much information in such an invigorating way.
Other verbs with this pattern are prevenir (to prevent), agredir (to attack) and denegrir (to denigrate).
You were hoping for a wilder example with transgredir, I’m sure. Let’s settle instead on me giving you the absolute craziest, most far-out screwball Portuguese present-tense verb conjugations… coming up next!
Get Your Flashcards Ready: The Most Wildly Irregular Portuguese Present Tense Verbs
You may have felt I was reaching a bit in the previous sections to find patterns and bring order to the Portuguese verbal universe—but at least pretending there’s an order can help us maintain the faith needed to memorize these verbs.
But here, my gentle flock, is where you can give up all hope and turn to agnosticism—or else drop Portuguese for a nicely ordered (but invented) language like the totally regular Esperanto.
I’ll still try to point out some of the patterns for the following way-out Portuguese verbs where such patterns somewhat exist. But in general, this section is a strong case for flashcards, either literally or with an app like Anki (do create your own cards in the app, rather than downloading, as doing so can in itself be a learning experience).
I remember a decade back, thumbing through my irregular Portuguese verbs on scraps of paper in a park in São Paulo—and then using those same verbs on evenings out dancing samba rock. These are the verbs you use, since they’re so common and integral to any conversation.
Irregularities in the eu form
First, there are verbs whose eu form is the only irregularity in the present tense indicative, so we’ll just show it here.
caber (to fit):
eu caibo —I fit
Eu caibo nesse espaço pequenininho! — I fit in this tiny space!
saber (to know):
eu sei — I know
Eu não sei com certeza o que você acha. —I don’t know for sure what you think.
Moving on, some verbs are more broadly irregular, but at least show a bit of a pattern in the non-eu forms.
trazer (to bring):
Eu trago um vinho para o jantar. — I’m bringing a bottle of wine to supper.
dizer (to say):
Eu digo claramente o que penso. — I clearly say what I think.
fazer (to do/to make):
Vocês fazem bagunça o dia inteiro! — You misbehave/mess things up/make messes all day long!
Ele faz os deveres com o seu filho. — He does homework with his son.
No patterns here: irregular verbs you’ll just have to memorize
Let’s dive further down the rabbit hole, dears. From here on out you may see some vague semblances of patterns, but it’s going to get messy.
ter (to have):
Tenho vontade de terminar os deveres. — I feel like finishing my homework.
The difference between tem and têm is purely written; the pronunciation in Brazil is identical.
vir (to come):
Again, the difference between vem and vêm is only written, not pronounced. Try to burn vir into your brain in sharp contrast to:
ver (to see):
As I mentioned earlier, the following verb is useful not just for transport, but also for talking about the future.
ir (to go):
Vamos embora às 10:00 da manhã. — We’re getting out of here at 10:00 a.m.
Vocês vão dançar um xote essa noite? — Are you guys going to dance a slow forró song tonight?
ser (to be [characteristic]):
Elas são as minhas amigas. — They’re my friends.
The more temporary verb for being has different forms in written and spoken Brazilian Portuguese. The written version is:
estar (to be [temporary]):
In spoken Brazilian Portuguese, the es- at the beginning of the above conjugations is only rarely pronounced. So we might write:
Ela está bem melhor. — She’s feeling a lot better.
But we’d say:
Ela tá bem melhor.
These are often seen in chat conversations spelled without the es- as well, but in more formal writing, es– is included. Tá all by itself means “okay.”
Moving on, just a few more oddballs to go…
dar (to give):
Eles sempre lhe dão um presente. — They always give him a present.
poder (to be able to):
No fim das contas, não posso ir, desculpa. — In the end it turns out I can’t go, sorry.
querer (to want):
Quer dançar comigo? — Do you want to dance with me?
And that’s it for our extensive dip into the most popular and useful irregular Portuguese verbs in the present tense.
There are some more irregular verbs out there, however. My Brazilian friends’ favorite resource for conjugating any verb (it’s tough for them too, sometimes) is Conjugação.com.br (if you try just Googling the verb plus “conjugation” you will, unfortunately, get Spanish verbs in many cases).
I also recommend the books “A Grammar of Spoken Brazilian Portuguese,” “Portuguese: A Linguistic Introduction” and “Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar” for more detail on the patterns involved in the verbs as well as how to employ them.
I don’t recommend conjugation list books, as that information is all available more readily on the conjugation site I mentioned and others.
Be careful as you’re learning not to fall into the trap of only learning the conjugations out of context. You want to be able to actually use these odd words in conversation, not just spit them out in order when prompted with the infinitive.
As I mentioned before, for me that meant lacing up my dance shoes at the end of the day, meeting people and spitting out whatever sad little Portuguese phrases I could. For you that might mean any number of other activities (learning-related or not) that get you actually employing these verbs in sentences.
The irregular verbs are so common that you’re bound to use them just about any time you open your mouth in the company of Brazilians.
Mose Hayward also writes about his Brazilian dancing adventures for Forró Club.