The Portuguese Subjunctive

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

There’s a Portuguese grammar aspect that learners dread studying.

They avoid it whenever they can, either constructing sentences that circumvent its use or just ignoring it altogether.

It’s the subjunctive mood, and it strikes fear into the hearts of many learners of Brazilian Portuguese.

In fact, Brazilians themselves have a fraught relationship with it and sometimes shy away from employing it in situations where it “should” be required.

So why should non-natives bother?

Well, all native speakers do use the subjunctive in some situations, so if you want to sound good in the language, it’s important to learn it. Plus, it serves a genuine communicative purpose: It’s a marker for unreality.

This post will show you how to tame the Portuguese subjunctive mood and turn the monster into nothing more than a kitten.


How to Learn the Portuguese Subjunctive

The Brazilian Portuguese subjunctive mood is an intermediate to advanced subject which should be approached after you’ve learned the indicative tenses. It’s vast enough that it should be learned bit by bit, not all at once.

In this post, however, I’ll throw the whole monster together into an overview that I hope you can refer back to as you’re learning. Consuming an article like this can also allow you to at least recognize the various subjunctive tenses when you see them in print or hear them in your learning apps and audio or video learning materials.

And that’s right, notice I said tenses—plural! There are three major tenses under the umbrella of the subjunctive mood: the present, imperfect (past) and future subjunctive. We’ll cover each, but first, let’s get a handle on what they’re all for.

I focus here on the subjunctive as used in Brazil in Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states, which is the standard for many learning materials and the goal for many learners.

If you’re focusing on Portuguese from other states or from Cabo Verde, Mozambique, Portugal or elsewhere, the use will be different and you may also need to learn tu forms. The overall ideas, however, remain the same.

The Dreamy Guide to Portuguese Subjunctive Mood Perfection

The Main Purpose of the Portuguese Subjunctive Mood

Unreality and emotion permeate the uses of the subjunctive. In contrast, the indicative mood (or “normal” past, present and future tenses that you’ve probably already learned) is about events in real life, those that are actually happening.

As I mentioned, the subjunctive is sometimes scary even for native speakers, but let’s face those fears and look at how fear itself triggers the subjunctive.

Há receio que tudo mundo fale errado. — There are fears that everyone speaks with mistakes.

That word fale is in the subjunctive mood because the “speaking” isn’t our main preoccupation; the main clause is há receio, or the having of fears. If we made a simple statement of fact, we’d instead use the present indicative:

Tudo mundo fala errado. — Everybody speaks with mistakes.

In addition to projecting emotions in the main clause about something happening in the subordinate clause, the subjunctive is used for everything unreal. I’m traveling in Brazil as I write this and enjoying an entirely hypothetical love life, so I have plenty of opportunity to plaintively employ the subjunctive.

Quero que ela comigo ao Pará. — I want her to go with me to Pará.

Preciso de um xodó que goste de viajar. — I need a darling who likes travelling.

Duvido que esta gostosa me ame. — I doubt that this hottie loves me.

Will my would-be, super-hot darling actually join me for a dance in the Brazilian state with the world’s most fascinating music? Who knows! I’m dealing with my fantasy life, so I unfortunately must use the subjunctive. (If things were going better, I’d perhaps be writing an article about the indicative.)

The above examples are fairly typical of subjunctive use in that the verbs conjugated in the subjunctive mood (vá, goste, ame — come, like, love) are placed in the second, “subordinate” clause. The verbs that talk about reality (quero, preciso, duvido — my wanting, needing and doubting) are in the main clause, the one that sets up the unreality.

It’s also possible, however, to have the unreality be implied from context and thus cause the subjunctive to barge forward into the main clause.

Talvez pense em mim. — Maybe she’s thinking of me.

Que você tenha sorte! — May you be lucky! / I hope you’re lucky!

When learning the subjunctive, pay particular attention to the words that trigger its use. In the above examples, we saw triggers like talvez and duvido que. When we see those words, we can thus be sure that their use elsewhere will also trigger the subjunctive.

The Conjugation and Use of the Present Subjunctive

The present subjunctive seems a bit like opposite-land in terms of the verb endings that are used to create it. The -ar verbs get the indicative present tense -er endings, while -ir and -er verbs get the -ar endings. This holds true for all subjects except eu (I), which is identical in the subjunctive to the você form.

Here’s what all that looks like.

Verbs ending in -ar, like falar (to speak):

eu, você, ele, ela fale

nós falemos

vocês, eles, elas falem

Verbs ending in -er, like beber (to drink):

eu, você, ele, ela beba

nós bebamos

vocês, eles, elas bebam

Verbs ending in –ir, like abrir (to open):

eu, você, ele, ela abra

nós abramos

vocês, eles, elas abram

Here are some examples of these regular verbs in action.

Surpreende ela que eu fale português. — It surprises her that I speak Portuguese.

Não é que eu nunca beba, mas hoje não estou afim. — It’s not that I never drink, but today I don’t feel like it.

Espero que eles abram a loja as 9:00. — I hope that they open the store at 9:00.

Ready for a good news/bad news wallop?

First, the bad: There are tons of irregular verbs in the present subjunctive that you’ll need to learn. In fact, generally, verbs that are irregular in the present indicative will also be irregular in the present subjunctive.

But here’s the good news: There’s a fairly straightforward way to make the stems of many of these verbs. Once you do that, then the conjugation endings are usually the same as with the -er verbs above.

The stem for such irregular verbs is based on the eu form of the present indicative. Here’s the process in action for the verb fazer (to do, to make).

1. fazer — our heroic verb in its base form

2. eu faço — first-person singular present indicative

3. faç- — the stem with the -o ending removed

4. eu, ele, ela, você faça / nós façamos / eles, elas, vocês façam — the stem with the present subjunctive endings added

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve a special treat. The lovely Elza Soares and Chico Buarque grab the verb fazer in its present subjunctive nós form and produce the most gorgeous rendition of this conjugation that’s ever been uttered.

When the lyrics say fazem in the indicative, they’re talking about some (vaguely romantic) “doing it” happening in the real world.

But when they sing façamos, they’re talking about something that’s not yet happening in reality (though you get the impression that their romantic overtures will be much more successful than my lovelorn subjunctive examples previously in this article). Façamos here would be translated as something like “let’s do it.”

And in fact, the one-word nós subjunctive form of any verb is a great way to suggest things doing things together, like the English “let’s [verb].”

Here are a few other verbs that follow a similar pattern of irregular present subjunctive conjugations that are based on their indicative eu forms. The conjugation sequence is thus similar to fazer:

poder (to be able to): possa, possamos, possam

ter (to have): tenha, tenhamos, tenham

ver (to see): veja, vejamos, vejam

And so on, for quite a few verbs. But it wouldn’t be any fun if there weren’t some verbs that also break all patterns and just go wild in the present subjunctive. Here are a few of those:

Ser (to be):

eu, você, ele, ela seja

nós sejamos

vocês, eles, elas sejam

Ir (to go):

eu, você, ele, ela

nós vamos

vocês, eles, elas vão

Saber (to know):

eu, você, ele, ela saiba

nós saibamos

vocês, eles, elas saibam

And here are examples of some of these in use:

Tomara que ele tenha mais sorte essa vez. — Let’s hope that he has more luck this time.

Vejamos o que podemos fazer. — Let’s see what we can do.

seja como for — be that as it may

That last one’s a fixed expression making use of the present subjunctive seja as well as the future subjunctive for of the same verb ser, which we’ll see in detail a bit later. But first, let’s dig into the past.

The Conjugation and Use of the Imperfect (Past) Subjunctive

The imperfect subjunctive is our way of talking about the unreal past, and it’s formed by adding some very slithering endings. The regular conjugations are as follows:

Verbs ending in -ar, like falar (to speak):

eu, você, ele, ela falasse

nós falássemos

vocês, eles, elas falassem

Verbs ending in -er, like beber (to drink):

eu, você, ele, ela bebesse

nós bebêssemos

vocês, eles, elas bebessem

Verbs ending in -ir, like abrir (to open):

eu, você, ele, ela abrisse

nós abríssemos

vocês, eles, elas abrissem

There are irregular imperfect subjunctive verbs too, which tend to have the same endings as the regular verbs but use the same (also irregular) stem as their preterite tense eles form. As before, the process for putting together these pieces can be shown with fazer:

1. fazer — our darling verb’s infinitive form

2. eles fizeram — the third-person preterite

3. fize — the stem that we want

4. eu, você, ele, ela fizesse / nós fizéssemos / vocês, eles, elas fizessem — past subjunctive conjugations

Here are some other common irregular imperfect subjunctive conjugations that follow this pattern:

ter (to have): tivesse, tivéssemos, tivessem

vir (to come): vivesse, vivêssemos, vivessem

dizer (to say): dissesse, disséssemos, dissessem

ser (to be) and ir (to go): fosse, fôssemos, fossem

Yes, those last two verbs there share the exact same imperfect subjunctive forms.

The past subjunctive works in much the same way as its present counterpart, for talking about emotions or unreality. The main clause can be in either the present or past tense, depending on your intention.

Não acredito que fosse uma boa ideia. — I don’t believe that it was a good idea.

Não acreditei que fosse uma boa ideia. — I didn’t believe that it was a good idea.

Talvez eles fossem a São Paulo para dançar samba rock. — Maybe they went to São Paulo to dance samba rock.

Ela dançou de maneira que eu notasse ela. — She danced so that I’d notice her.

The imperfect subjunctive tense is also used in ways that don’t actually have a past meaning. A typical pattern for another use is:

Se (if) + imperfect subjunctive clause + imperfect indicative (speech) or conditional (formal writing) clause

For example, in speech we might say:

Se eu tivesse mais tempo, visitava Paraty. — If I had more time, I’d visit Paraty.

Se a gente voasse, chegava mais cedo. — If we flew, we’d get there sooner.

Note that in these phrases the imperfect would perhaps be exchanged for the conditional in formal writing (visitaria, chegaria).

Some Portuguese teachers will insist that the conditional is “correct” here, but you’re quite likely to hear Brazilians using the imperfect instead and need to at least be able to understand it (and likely use it yourself, once far from the ears of pedant teachers).

Over the past? Let’s check out our hypothetical futures.

The Conjugation and Use of the Future Subjunctive

Portuguese is different from its popular close cousins like Catalan, Italian, Spanish and French in having a subjunctive future tense. But it makes sense that you’d want one, right? What could be more hypothetical than the future? Bully for you, Portuguese.

The forms for regular future subjunctive verbs are as follows.

Verbs ending in -ar, like falar (to speak):

eu, você, ele, ela falar

nós falarmos

vocês, eles, elas falarem

Verbs ending in -er, like beber (to drink):

eu, você, ele, ela beber

nós bebermos

vocês, eles, elas beberem

Verbs ending in -ir, like abrir (to open):

eu, você, ele, ela abrir

nós abrirmos

vocês, eles, elas abrirem

The future subjunctive may look a lot to you like the personal infinitive (another tense that Portuguese has and many Romance languages lack). And these two tenses are in fact identical—but only for regular verbs.

For irregular verbs, the stem of the third-person plural preterite form is used as the stem of the verb for creating the future subjunctive (similarly to what we saw in the last section for the imperfect subjunctive).

So that process for the verb fazer looks like this:

1. fazer — our superstar verb

2. eles fizeram — third-person preterite

3. fizer- — the stem that we want

4. eu, você, ele, ela fizer / nós fizermos / vocês, eles, elas fizerem — future subjunctive conjugations

Contrast those with the personal infinitive forms of this same verb, which simply use the infinitive as the stem:

eu, você, ele, ela fazer

nós fazermos

vocês, eles, elas fazerem

So here’s the infinitive form correctly used in context:

Vale a pena fazermos tudo isso? — Is it worth it for us to do all of this?

And here’s the future subjunctive with the same verb:

Quando fizermos tudo isso, estaremos em Recife. — When we do all of this, we’ll be in Recife.

The personal infinitive forms are easier than the future subjunctive, so some Brazilians do “incorrectly” replace the future subjunctive with the personal infinitive in speech, depending sometimes on context.

But overall, Brazilians generally do use the correct form of the future subjunctive in speech, so it really is worth it for learners to do so too, taking on the whole above process from the preterite third-person plural stem.

Quando isn’t the only word that can suggest our hypothetical futures. Let’s look at some more triggers for the future subjunctive:

Logo que Paula Lima me conhecer, vai querer se casar comigo. — As soon as Paula Lima meets me, she’ll want to marry me.

Sempre que elas começarem a dançar, o público vai gritar. — Whenever they start to dance, the audience will scream.

Qualquer coisa que ela quiser, vou dar. — Anything that she wants, I’ll give her.

In some cases, either the personal infinitive or the future subjunctive gets used in speech. The subjunctive here tends to sound more formal and hypothetical and the personal infinitive is more popular in spoken Portuguese.

Future subjunctive: Se ele vier, vamos festejar. — If he comes, we’ll party.

Spoken, lazier version of the same: Se ele vir, vamos festejar.

With the word para (for), you should really use the personal infinitive and not the future subjunctive:

Para vir essa noite, ele precisa de um carro. — To come tonight, he needs a car.

Danço só para ela me ver. — I dance just for her to see me.

A Grammar of Spoken Brazilian Portuguese

That’s enough of an overview for now, but we certainly haven’t covered every possible use and permutation of the subjunctive. For more, check out the textbooks “A Grammar of Spoken Brazilian Portuguese” (a learning guide focused on the spoken language) and “Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar” (more of a reference work).

As always, it’s useful to practice the tenses as you learn them with native speakers, and you can do so online.

You might take your cues for what sentences to form from songs, which provide a great way to experience and practice the subjunctive tenses—since these tenses suggest unreality, they’re perfect for the apparently lovelorn dudes that pen most Brazilian pop music.

The forró classic “Só Quero Um Xodó” (“I Just Want a Darling”) is a good example. In the lyrics, the singer wants a sweetheart “que acabe o meu sofrer” (“who ends my suffering”) and “que alegre o meu viver (“who makes my life happy”).

If you recognize the present subjunctive endings on the words acabe and alegre, you know that this is an imagined xodó (darling, sweetheart), not a real one.

Now, can you employ the subjunctive in a similar way? What would your imagined creampuffs or hunky-doos be like, and what would they do? Can you also use the future and past subjunctives to talk about what past xodós should have been like, or what future ones will be like, once you manage to snag them?

And if you already have a perfect life with your perfect xodó(s), you don’t need the fantasy release of the subjunctive mood. But with this guide, you can dream about other things!

Mose Hayward is traveling, alone, with the best backpack for Brazil.

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