Grasp the Portuguese Conditional Tense Once and for All
The Portuguese conditional tense is simple.
It usually corresponds to “would + verb” in English.
The keyword here is — usually.
How usual is usually?
Let’s Get Some Terminology Off the Way
I don’t usually like the official nomenclature of verb tenses in Portuguese.
They confuse more than they help, and they tend to be so obscure it’s impossible to fathom what they mean.
For example, the conditional tense in Portuguese is “future of the preterite”, futuro do pretérito.
In a sense, whoever chose that name was right. It refers to an imagined past but it’s not quite there.
But at the same time, it makes no sense. What’s the future of the past?
Keep that question in mind because when we deal with the conditional subjunctive we might need some imagination.
For now, in this article I’m going to refer to this tense as “conditional”.
The Portuguese Conditional Tense — Conjugations
I’m usually against conjugation tables.
There are too many verbs in Portuguese and they tend to be predictable.
And you can find all of them here anyway.
But when it comes to the conditional, I make an exception.
It corresponds roughly to the structure “would + verb” in English.
And you can form the conditional for almost any verb by attaching the following endings to almost any infinitive.
|Pronouns / Verbs||Comprar||Vender||Sair|
|Você, ele/ela, a gente||Compraria||Venderia||Sairia|
As I said, you can use the conditional where you would say in English “if I could… I would”.
And usually, the conditional pairs up with the imperfect subjunctive.
- Se você tivesse um milhão de dólares o que compraria primeiro? If you had $1 million what would you buy first?
- Eu teria mais tempo se não trabalhasse tanto.I would have more time if I didn’t work so much.
- Se soubesse nadar, nadaria até o outro lado do rio.If I were able to swim, I would swim across the river.
- Você saberia me dizer que horas a Paula chegou ontem? Estou suspeitando de uma coisa.Would you be able to tell me what time Paula arrived yesterday? I have a suspicion…
And as a proudly bespectacled person, I have said the following sentence a couple of times in my life.
Keep it. It’s going to help you remember the structure of this tense in Portuguese.
I Said ‘Almost Any Verb’ — Irregular Verbs with the Conditional Tense in Portuguese
I said above that you just need to add the endings to almost any verb.
And lucky you, you’ll only have to grapple with three verbs in the entire Portuguese language that do not fit the rule I taught you above.
And the verbs are:
fazer (to do)
dizer (to say, to tell)
trazer (to bring)
- Você faria isso por mim? Would you do that for me?
- Eu diria que essa peça é muito importante. Mas não sei qual função ela tem aqui.I would say that peace is very important. But I don’t know what function it has here.
- Eu até traria a minha filha, mas ela está doente. I would even bring my daughter, but she is sick.
If you want to know the reason why those verbs are irregular, just keep in mind that it has to do with their Latin forms.
And knowing Latin does help you speak Portuguese well.
But that’s a conversation for another day.
A Special Usage of the Portuguese Conditional Tense
Imagine the following situation.
You’re telling a friend about the story on one of your favorite authors.
You tell her that the author had a rough childhood but then he would go on to become one of the biggest names in the world.
(Of course, we don’t usually talk about that topic but if you do kudos to you.)
We use the conditional to express part of that description.
- Monteiro Lobato seria um dos autores mais importantes da literatura brasileira.Monteiro Lobato went on to become one of the most important authors of Brazilian literature.
- Esse elemento seria muito importante na história.This element was very important in the story.
It doesn’t mean that it’s a conditional. It’s just a way to soften your statement.
And because Brazilians tend to be very indirect, they use the conditional in this sense frequently — but mostly in writing academic Portuguese.
“Every day I would wake up at five…“
What would you do every day when you were a kid?
Who were the friends you would talk to ceaselessly?
What was the game you would play whenever you had a chance?
You see that in English when you want to talk about habits — things you used to do — you use “would”.
And that might lead you to mistakenly use the conditional to express that.
Some of my students did that when they were starting out. That’s pretty natural.
But that’s not how we speak it in Portuguese.
In that kind of situation, we resort to the past imperfect tense.
- Todos os dias eu me acordava às 5:00 da manhã.Every day I would wake up at five in the morning.
- Eu não brincava muito porque precisava de estudar bastante.I wouldn’t play much because I needed to study a lot.
- O que você fazia quando chegava do trabalho?What did you use to do when you arrived from work?
(And if you want to brush up on your knowledge of the past tenses, go here.)
The conditional perfect in Portuguese — when something would have been completed in a situation that never existed.
You probably daydream.
I know I do. And when I daydream, I imagine the things that I would have already done had I had the chance of having them.
And that’s what you can express with the conditional perfect in Portuguese. The structure is “ter [conditional] + participle of the main verb [the -ado, -ido form]”.
It’s something that would have been completed if you had had something else — a requirement or condition.
- Seu pai teria ficado muito feliz. Você fez a coisa certa.Your father would have been very glad. You did the right thing.
- Eu teria comprado. Porém, não tinha dinheiro.I would have bought it. But I didn’t have the money.
And you see that I avoided giving the reason in both examples (if the parent had been there… If I had had the money…).
There is a reason for that. And the reason is called —
Again, the nomenclature is not this one. But let’s make things easy.
And may my school teachers never read this article. They would have a heart attack if they could see it.
Let’s call it “conditional subjunctive” when you have to use the compound imperfect subjunctive (having the verb “ter [imperfect subjunctive]” as an auxiliary verb) alongside with the conditional perfect.
And here is where you give the reason why something might have been done or might not have been done.
- Se eu tivesse ganhado o prêmio na loteria, teria comprado pelo menos cinco casas.If I would have won the lottery prize [which I haven’t], I would have bought at least five houses.
- Se ela tivesse feito o trabalho antes, não precisaria trabalhar tanto hoje.If you would have done the work before, she wouldn’t need to work so much today.
I don’t hear that commonly in English. And some of my sources — my good students who helped me all the time with English — tell me that it’s quite advanced and uncommon in speaking.
It roughly corresponds to would / might have + participle and had + participle.
Of course, I’m giving you this information to help you raise awareness to the existence of this combination of tenses.
It’s what some scientists call the reticular activating system. It’s like when you buy a car of a certain color.
You didn’t see cars of the same color before. But once you have bought one it seems cars of that color spring from every corner.
It’s the same with Portuguese grammar. Once you know a specific feature exists in the language you start seeing it everywhere. It’s at that moment that your brain arranges the information and makes sense out of everything it’s stored.
Odds and Ends
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about what I am about to discuss but if you learn Brazilian Portuguese you can pretty much ignore everything here.
Specially if you don’t read old literature.
When ancient writers would use a direct object with the conditional tense, they would do something we call in Portuguese “mesóclise“.
This very name makes Brazilians shiver.
Mesóclise happens when we split the verb root and its ending and put the direct object in between those two elements.
Thus, a perfectly natural sentence like this:
- Eu o faria se tivesse tempo.I would do it if I had the time.
Would become a monstrosity like this:
- Fá-lo-ia se tivesse tempo.I would do it if I had the time.
But as I said, we don’t do that in Brazilian Portuguese. At least not in modern Brazilian Portuguese. You might see that in literature and extremely formal documents. But you will hardly ever see it anywhere else.
Only former president Michel Temer would use that.
But you know — he’s Dracula’s age.
As you have seen, the conditional tense in Portuguese is quite easy.
It’s just when it comes to its combinations that it becomes hard.
And even so with a little patience and some practice you can master this tense of Portuguese.
And if you want to have a complete basic overview of the Portuguese tenses all in one place, you can download our free guide here (click).
And should you need more help with grammar, head over to our content-rich grammar section.
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