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In Portuguese, Plural Words Are the Least of Your Problems

I remember when I taught English at school, I had a hard time.

I tried to explain to people that we didn’t say “goods books” in English. After all, the plural in English is usually found in pronouns and nouns.

But in Portuguese, plural words can belong to many categories.

And for you, it might be a problem.

And your being here tells me a thing or two.

You probably need help with the plural form in Portuguese. And that’s the kind of help you are getting now.

First — the General Rule

I can’t quite understand why English has irregular plurals like “oxen”.

It just does make sense. Why does it end in -EN?

In Portuguese, the general rule is that words and in -S.

  • Os estudantes são muito aplicados.The students are very hard-working.
  • Os carros andam muito rápido.The cars go very fast.

And before you move on, you might as well keep this table for you.

It’s like one of those cheat sheets that we tend to use for the SAT tests and stuff. That is, if you ever need to take the SAT. It’ll help you with some “irregular” plural forms in Portuguese as well.

You’ll see that the table is divided into two columns. If a word ends in a specific ending, then you should either add or change the ending as shown in the second column.

You’ll see more examples of those rules in the sections below.

When a word ends in…Then…
Vowel in generalAdd -s
-s-es
-r, -z, -n-es
-ãoReplace with -ães, – ões, -ãos
-m-ns
-il-is, or -es
-al, -ol, -ul, -el-eis or -is

When it Ends in -al, el, -ul, -ol

This tends to be the common pitfall for my students.

Even though they know how to form the plural, when it comes to words ending in those endings, they end up making the very same mistakes.

And the mistakes usually come from the fact that the final L is actually a vowel sound. And vowels — in written form — follow a different rule. It’s not like English where you can say “nationals”.

  • Os vinhos nacionais não têm um gosto muito bom.National wines don’t have a very good taste.
  • Não conheço os hotéis nessa cidade.I don’t know the hotels in this town.
  • As roupas azuis são sempre mais bonitas.Blue clothes are always more beautiful.

When the Words End in -il…

Those words follow a different rule. It’s not like the words above, but it’s actually a different ending.

  • Os brasileiros são muito gentis com os visitantes.Brazilians are very kind to visitors.
  • Por que vocês são tão hostis com os outros? Meu Deus! Why are so hostile with other people? My gosh!
  • Os répteis são muito perigosos. Reptiles are very dangerous.

When Words End in a Consonant like R or S…

In this case, the general rule is that we add an -es to form the masculine plural – the feminine is -as.

  • As mulheres podem votar na maioria dos países.Women can vote in most countries.
  • Há três meses comecei a aprender português.It’s been three months since I started learning Portuguese.
  • Poucos homens querem normalmente escolher ser professores.Women usually elect to be teachers.

Os répteis são muito perigosos.Reptiles are very dangerous.

When Words End in Nasal Vowels (in Writing)

The common singular form ending is -ão, but the plural form may differ.

You might think — how will I know when to use one of the three possible endings?

The answer is — practice.

Brazilians actually have a hard time figuring out what plural form to using the exceptions that I going to be presented below.

  • Os portões dessas casas são muito bonitos.The gates of these houses are very beautiful.
  • Quantos pães você vai querer?How many breads are you going to buy?

But as we say, exceptions are everywhere. Here are some common words that won’t follow that rule.

  • Mãos, cidadãos, órfãos. Hands, citizens, orphans.

When a Word Ends in a Nasal Consonant in Writing We Then Have Plural with -ns.

The pronunciation actually doesn’t change – the nasal sound keeps nasal, with no reductions whatsoever.

  • Os homens são muito competitivos nesse programa.Men are very competitive in this program.
  • Quantos itens há nessa lista?How many items are there on this list?

“But Portuguese Has Compound Words, Right?”

You’re right.

“And how do you form the plural of compound words in Portuguese?”

That’s actually a very clever question.

And again, if you ask your fellow Brazilian chances are they won’t know what you’re asking it down.

When we are talking about compound words formed by an adjective and a noun, both go to plural.

  • As segundas-feiras. Mondays.
  • Terças-feiras.Tuesdays.

If a Verb-Noun Combination is in Place…

We are talking about a compound word formed by a verb and a noun, then only the noun goes to plural.

  • Os guarda-chuvas. The umbrellas.
  • Os guarda-roupas. The closet (wardrobes).

A long time ago in Brazil, when a man married a woman, the woman’s family had to pay a “compensation for the man’s trouble”. This would be the “dote”. Of course, the money was used to help with their new life as well, but some men didn’t care. They looked for “dotes”, not wives. And those men were called “caça-dotes”.

Because in the origin of the expression, the noun is already in the plural, it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about one man or more than one. It’s always the same form:

  • O caça-dotes, os caça-dotes. The gold-digger (historical).

When Both Words Are Nouns, then the Portuguese Plural is…

And when both words are nouns, then the first noun goes to plural and the second can remain in the singular form if there is a “subordination” relationship — the first term determines the second one.

  • Palavras-chave. Keyword.
  • Bombas-relógio. Clockbomb.

But if they’re both independent terms, then both should go to plural:

  • O cirurgião-dentista. The dentist surgeon (this person is both things at the same time).

And when there’s a prefix, only the noun goes to plural:

  • Os bebês recém-nascidos. The newborn babies.

If There’s a Preposition Involved

And whenever we are talking about a compound with the preposition linking both original terms, only the first time goes to plural.

  • Pés-de-moleque. A kind of Brazilian candy.

But Some Words Never Change

Prepositions, interjections, most conjunctions, and adverbs never change in Portuguese.

And some words are exceptions — because they end in -S, they don’t have plural form in Portuguese.

But don’t be misled. These are exceptions.

  • Lápis. Pencil.
  • Vírus. Virus.
  • Ônibus. Bus.
  • Arroz. Rice.

And you might have seen that “back” in Portuguese is always used in the plural. Can it be singular?

  • Parabéns. Congratulations.
  • As costas. Back.

Wrap-Up

In such a technical topic it wouldn’t work to have lots of explanations about how to form the plural.

Anything more than that, and we would be dancing for a fact.

You know that as a rule, we use the letter -s to signal the plural.

And even if you make a mistake, if you add the plural ending, we know that you are actually dealing with the plural. And will probably offer an answer to help you.

So, don’t be afraid. Speak up.

Don’t try to learn all these rules.

It is a waste of your precious time. Really. Just keep in mind that plurals in Portuguese tend to be different, and memorize them as you go.

If you have any questions about anything grammar-wise, let me know in the comments section below.

And if you would like to check out the full list of grammar articles that we have, click here.

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