The Intricacies of the Portuguese Question Words Explained
The Portuguese question words are highly useful and I’ll show you why.
I don’t know about you, but my first complete sentence was a question.
My mom says I was a peculiar baby, but the fact is most people learn — as children — first how to ask questions and answer them (and it even helps us learn how to think).
And when learning a new language, asking questions helps you not only clarify what you hear; it’s a kind of social lubricant that smoothens conversations out.
In Portuguese, we have the common suspects — when, where, what… — But there are some interesting things you should know about the Portuguese question words if you are to speak with ease.
And in this short article, I’m going to show you how to do just that.
The interesting thing here is that como doesn’t always correspond to “how” in English.
As you’ll see in the first question, whereas in English you ask, “what’s your name?” in Portuguese we say, “how is your name?”
- Como é seu nome? What’s your name?
- Como está a sua mãe? How is your mother?
- Como você prepara esse bolo de chocolate? Está muito gostoso. How do you prepare this chocolate cake? It’s very tasty.
And sometimes it corresponds to “way” as in the next sentences:
- Me desculpe, mas não tenho como te ajudar. I’m sorry, but I have no way to help you.
- Preciso de sua ajuda para escrever. Você tem como? I need your help to write. Do you have any way to help me?
The word onde is excessively used in Portuguese — but it’s a topic for other day.
- Onde fica a sua casa? Eu estou aqui no seu bairro. Where is your house? I’m here in your neighborhood.
- Para onde as crianças estão indo? Já é hora do almoço. Where are the kids going? It’s lunchtime.
- Você vai vir para minha casa por onde? Não venha pela avenida, está engarrafada. Where are you going to come over to my house by? Don’t come by the Avenue, it’s jammed.
- De onde você é? Where are you from?
Another point you want to pay attention to is its pronunciation.
According to the “standard” (heh-heh) Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation, the second syllable (de) must be pronounced “DJEE”.
Because of that, whenever the next word starts with a vowel, Brazilians link onde and the next word.
For now, let me give you the vanilla examples of “what”. But be warned — what and which in Portuguese can be used interchangeably in several situations.
And “what” has a cousin who needs attention, too.
- A que horas você vai começar a aula hoje? At what time are you going to start the class today?
- Que livro você me recomenda? What book do you recommend me?
- Em que dia da semana você tem aulas? On what day of the week do you have lessons?
A quick note about the first example.
Including “A” at the beginning of ” A que horas você vai começar a aula hoje?” didn’t really catch on with people in everyday conversations.
So, when asking at what time something happens, you can drop “a”.
- Que horas você vai começar a aula hoje? What time are you going to start the lesson today?
Whenever there are options implied — from among a group of something — you can use “qual”.
- Qual é o seu celular? O preto ou o vermelho? Which one is your cell phone? The black one or the red one?
- Qual delas é a sua mãe? Which one of them is your mother?
But now, a quick parenthesis.
In the examples above, you must use qual. But here are some examples in which “que” can also be used.
- Em que dia da semana você tem aula? (1)
- Em qual dia da semana você tem aula? (2)
- Que livro você me recomenda? (1)
- Qual livro você me recomenda? (2)
At first blush, those pairs of sentences have the same meaning.
But, depending on the context they could imply a set of things that can be chosen (2) or an open-ended question (1).
But Brazilians tend to observe this difference only — if ever — in writing.
That’s why you’ll hear many Brazilians using either one with no significant change in meaning.
Quanto? (How much/how many?)
You’ve probably heard an ESL speaker saying, “how many sugar” or “how much people”. And chances are, they speak Portuguese or any of the romance languages.
That happens because we have only one word for both concepts — quanto.
Quanto is an adjective. Whenever you use it, you must remember that it agrees with whatever noun that follows.
- Quanto custa uma passagem para nova Jersey? How much is a ticket to New Jersey?
- Quanto tempo leva para chegar a São Paulo de ônibus? How long [“how much time”] does it take to arrive at São Paulo by bus?
- Quantos anos você tem? How old are you? [How many years do you have?]
- Eu preciso escrever quantas palavras nesse texto? How many words do I need to write in this text?
Only one thing about Quem. You don’t need to pronounce the U and make sure to say it very nasal.
Very, very nasal.
- Eu não sei quem é você. Me desculpe. I don’t know who you are. I’m sorry.
- De quem são esses óculos em cima da mesa? Whose glasses are these on the table?
- Com quem você estuda português? Who do you study Portuguese with?
Not much to say on this front. Just remember, here you should pronounce the U.
- Quando é que vocês vêm nos visitar aqui em Paris? When are you coming to visit us here in Paris?
- Não sei quando vou visitar você, mas sei quando você vai vir me visitar. I don’t know when I’m going to visit you, but I know when you’re going to visit me.
Por quê? (Why)
Hey, this one requires an article of its own. You can take the first step to use “por quê” easily in Portuguese.
O quê/que? (What… Again?!)
A few paragraphs above, you learned how to use it.
But there is a master trick to making it sound natural.
Whenever you’re using “que”, think:
- Is it preceding any noun or adjective? Then use just “que”.
- Does it stand on its own? That is, is it the object are the subject of a sentence? Then use “o quê”.
- O que você vai fazer no final de semana? What are you going to do this weekend? (You going to do “what.”)
- Não sei o que vou comprar. I don’t know what I’m going to buy.
And, when emphasizing it or expressing surprise, put a little hat over the “ê” and make it longer and more like “ay” in “day”.
- O quê? Como assim? Não acredito que você disse isso! What? How so? I can’t believe you said it!
Special Usages of the Portuguese Question Words
É que (it’s that…)
Brazilians often use this to emphasize a question — or a statement.
- (after question word) Com quem é que você está aprendendo português? Who is it that are you learning Portuguese with?
- (after a noun) Em que cidade é que você vai ficar aqui no Canadá? In what city is it that are you going to stay in Canada?
And if you want to express indignation or unpleasant surprise at something that someone said, you can use:
- Como é que é? Excuse me?
And a Special Case
Take a look at the following examples:
- Quem está na conferência com você? Who is in the conference with you?
- Quando é que começa a conferência? When does the conference begin?
You probably noticed that the first one uses estar and the second one uses ser.
it’s just that when we talk about time we use “ser.” And when discussing where something takes place — the “being” is taking place at the conference — you use “estar”.
See? Even though those are common words that you learn by sheer repetition, there are some tricks — especially the one about using “que” and “o quê” — that textbooks are remiss and your friends can’t really explain.
Do you have any questions? Leave it in the comments section below.
And if you’re in for a quick exercise, write any questions you would like me to answer, even the ones you find “silly”.