Este and Esse in Portuguese Are Different, and Here’s Why
Not one, not two, but five of my students asked me the same question in the last twenty-two days: what’s the difference between “este” and “esse” in Portuguese?
That’s one of the lucky things about having a job like mine — I’m in constant contact with students and they bring a lot to the table.
What are they, what do they mean?
Este and Esse in Portuguese are demonstrative pronouns (or adjectives, depending on where they’re used). I could lecture you on the different purposes of using demonstrative pronouns in Portuguese, but that would be too boring.
So, instead of doing so, let’s depict three situations.
You’re talking to your friend and then you hear the most incredible news — they are going to get married! Amazed, you say, “this is great!”
You get home and find your family gathered in the living room. You see a new pair of glasses on the table and ask: “Never seen these glasses before. Whose are they?”
You’re trying to talk sense into a good friend. With a menacing tone of voice, you say, “all I have to say is this — if you do what you want to do, you’re going to have trouble.”
You can see that the word “this” was used three times, one in each situation. Any none of them have the same meaning.
This is the versatility of the demonstrative pronouns. And in Portuguese, they work the same way.
The problem is that esse and este in Portuguese look alike, sound similar, and aren’t used consistently by native speakers.
But there is a right way to use them. And this is what you’re going to learn in a moment.
First, I’d like to clarify something.
Second person? Who? (and this is important!)
The grammatical explanation of these demonstrative pronouns involves some heavy terminology.
Things like: first person of the discourse, reference, referent, anaphora…
These things ain’t fun.
But there is something we have to grasp if we are to master this part of the Portuguese language.
Imagine that you and your best friend are in the same room.
When in the examples I say “talking about things that are close to me” I want you to replace “me” with your own name. Likewise, “I” refers to you, the reader.
And whenever you see “the other person” I want you to substitute your best friend’s name for it.
Now, let’s go.
Using Este in Portuguese
There are three main situations when “este” is used in Portuguese.
And quick tip: we usually employ “este” with “aqui”, sandwiching the noun it refers to.
Using an example that you’ll see below:
- De quem são estes óculos aqui em cima da mesa?
Talking about Things That Are Close to [Me]
- De quem são estes óculos em cima da mesa? Whose are these glasses on the table?
- Este é o meu amigo, Pedro. This is my friend, Peter.
Talking about the Present Time
- Este ano tem sido terrível para os negócios. This year has been terrible for business.
- Este mês tem muitos feriados. Não acho que vá ser bom para os negócios. This month has too many holidays. I don’t think it’s going to be good for business.
Preceding Something I’m about to Say
- O único problema que vejo é este: não podemos viajar. The only problem that I see is this: we can’t travel.
- Se eu tenho uma recomendação, é esta: estude todos os dias e vai aprender muito mais. If I have one recommendation, then it’s this: study every day and you will learn much more.
Using Esse in Portuguese
We do like threes in Portuguese… because there are three situations in which esse can be used 😊
And usually Brazilians tend to couple “esse” with “aí”.
Using an example you’re about to see:
- Você vai comer todo esse bolo aí?
Talking about Something Far from Me But Close to [The Other Person]
- Você vai comer todo esse bolo?* Are you going to eat this cake?
- Essa camisa que você está vestindo é minha, não é? This shirt you’re wearing is mine, isn’t it?
Talking about a Point in Time in the Past
- A crise aconteceu em 2008. Nesse ano eu ainda não tinha começado a trabalhar como operador financeiro. The crisis happened in 2008. In that year I had and started to work as a financial operator yet.
Talking about Something Mentioned Before
- Comprar livros e passar o dia lendo: esses eram seus dois grandes desejos. Buying books and spending the day reading — these were his two biggest wishes.
- O senhor Alberto é muito rico e foi esse homem que me ajudou a encontrar minha mãe. Alberto is very rich and it was this man who helped me find my mother.
And Is Still the Same with Isso, Isto in Portuguese?
The logic is the same but the situations vary a bit.
Let’s take a look at the examples to understand it more easily.
We do like threes, but sometimes the number two is a better friend in Portuguese.
Using Isto in Portuguese
(And quick tip: as a clever student, you’ll see that what I said above about “sandwiching” este + aqui and esse + aí also works for isto + aqui and isso + aí.)
Talking About Something Close to [Me]
- Isto que eu tenho aqui é um pequeno presente que recebi da minha amiga Alice. This thing I have here is a small gift from my friend Alice.
- Isto que eu acabei de dizer é um segredo. Se você o contar para alguém, eu te mato. This thing that I have just told about is a secret. If you tell anybody about it, I’ll kill you.
Referring to Something that I’m about to Say
- Eu só vou te dizer isto uma vez: ou você me respeita ou quebro a sua cara. I’m going to say this only once: you either respect me or I’ll beat you up.
- É melhor você ter isto em mente: Deus ajuda a quem cedo madruga. You’d better have this in mind — the early bird gets the worm.
Using Isso in Portuguese
Again, not three but rather two situations in which “isso” is more commonly used.
Talking about Something — Specific or General — That Is Close to [the Other Person]
- O que é isso aí? Posso dar uma olhadinha? What’s that? Can I take a look at it?
- Isso me deixa muito irritado. Você tem que ter mais cuidado com o que fala. This annoys me very much. You have to be more careful about what you say.
And in this second example, isso refers to what the other person said. Hence, psychologically, what the other person is close to them, not to me.
Referring to Something Already Mentioned Before
- A pessoa acordar e não saber o que vai fazer no dia… isso é que é uma vida infeliz. Waking up and not knowing what you will do on that day — that’s what an unhappy life is.
- A gente pode até aprender português em 6 meses, mas isso exige muito esforço. We can even learn Portuguese in six months, but this requires a lot of effort.
But in Brazil…
Well, in most books you’ll read, these distinctions are made and observed rigorously.
Seriously, they have people to enforce that.
But in everyday conversations, Brazilians hardly ever notice that difference.
If you’re talking about people from Portugal, they use it very correctly, I was told.
So, knowing how to use este and esse in Portuguese gives you extra brownie points if you are in Portugal.
But in Brazil, that’s good but not required.
- I know what demonstrative pronouns are and am aware that they’re versatile.
- I know that in Portuguese they have more demonstrative pronouns that make finer distinctions about what they’re saying.
- Portuguese seems to like the number three.
- I know that the same logic that applies to este and esse is valid for isto and isso, but the earlier have three main situations in which they occur. The latter happens in only two situations.
- In everyday life, Brazilians don’t care about using esse or este, but in Portugal they do. Oh, yes, they do.
And now that you know the finer distinctions of those expressions, I invite you to visit our grammar section for the finest distinctions.
And of course, if you want to speak with more confidence — making fewer mistakes and knowing exactly what Portuguese verb tense to use — grab this report. I’ve written it for you.
But hurry — it’s a paid product temporarily available for free. Being a solo teacher, I can afford only a number of free downloads of that report.