Subjunctive in Brazilian Portuguese Finally Made Easy
The subjunctive in Brazilian Portuguese is the biggest obstacle in your journey to fluency in Portuguese. It is that big wall of rocks you cannot walk around. You have to climb it.
Sometimes the going gets rough, and we get discouraged. But there is no reason for it. If you want to learn the subjunctive the right way, you have to understand the concept of the triggers.
I could explain to you that the subjunctive mood in Portuguese is used when we have a kind of guess or any uncertainty. But that would do no good.
Instead, I’ll tell you one simple thing: there are verbal triggers in Portuguese that activate the subjunctive mood.
There are many of them, to be sure. But they are learnable and logical.
Because there are many, we have decided to divide it into four sections. This is the first one.
Trigger #1 – Special verbs dealing with desire, order, expectation, or uncertainty
The first and most common trigger is a group of simple verbs that express the order, desire, expectation, or uncertainty (suppositions and presumptions).
Some of those verbs are:
- Aconselhar que
- deixar que
- desejar que
- detestar que
- esperar que
- exigir que
- gostar que
- impedir que
- pedir que
- permitir que
- proibir que
- precisar que
The structure is always verb + que + complement using the subjunctive tense.
Here are some examples:
- Eu preciso que você me ajude a estudar português.
- Desejo que você tenha um bom dia bom final
- Ele me pediu que eu fosse para casa agora.
And just to reinforce what you’ve just learned, watch the following video where I explain in detail this first trigger.
Trigger #2 – As incredible as it may seem
As you will see, many of the triggers have to do with some kind of conjunction.
Conjunctions are words that link sentences. They may link sentences with the same value (coordination). Or they may connect sentences with different values (subordination).
The conjunctions that trigger the subjunctive mood in Portuguese are of this latter type – subordinating conjunctions.
The first conjunction we’ll be looking into is the structure “Por mais [adjective] que + subjunctive.”
- Por incrível que pareça, não tenho medo de aranhas.
- As incredible as it may seem, I’m not afraid of spiders.
- Por mais difícil que seja, vou aprender português.
- As hard as it may be, I’m going to learn Portuguese.
- Por melhor que seja, esse computador está muito caro.
- No matter how good it is, this computer is too expensive.
As you have seen in the example above, the translation is not always the same, but the idea remains unchanged.
Watch this video to deepen your understanding of it. There are exercises.
Trigger #3 – Impersonal Expressions
In Portuguese, we have something called impersonal expressions.
They are phrases that use the structure “it is + adjective + que.” In English, you could say something like it is important that you study now. It would sound very formal and impersonal. That’s the exact idea we have in Portuguese.
But, whatever follows the word “que,” has to be in the subjunctive mood.
- É importante que nós façamos o trabalho o quanto antes.
- It is important that we do the job as soon as possible.
- Acho que é interessante que ele vá agora . Ainda está cedo.
- I think it’s interesting that he goes now. It is still early. (Used to give advice or suggestion.)
- Era bom que ela dissesse se vai ter tempo ou não de me visitar.
- It would be good [that] she said whether she’s going to have time or not to visit me.
*Some of the translations are not idiomatic. They are there to show you a little bit more of the structure.
As you have seen in the examples above, the tenses of the verbs must agree.
Another important thing is that this structure can be transformed into the personal infinitive that we have in Portuguese.
- É importante que nós façamos o trabalho o quanto antes.
- É importante fazermos o trabalho o quanto antes.
And if you want to deepen your knowledge and complete some exercises, you can watch the video below.
Trigger # 4 – Subordinating Conjunctions
You’ve probably seen that before, but Portuguese has lots of subordinating conjunctions. I prepared a list of them here with some tips on how to use them with the subjunctive.
But not all conjunctions require the subjunctive. Among them, you should pay close attention to the conjunctions that express concession. in English, they would be words like although, though, even if, even though (the two latter ones deserved an article of their own).
- Embora esteja cansado, vou terminar o trabalho. Although I’m tired, I’m going to finish the job.
- Ainda que português seja difícil para mim, vou continuar estudando para falar com minha família. Even though Portuguese is hard for me, I’m going to continue studying to be able to speak with my family.
- Nem que leve cinco anos, vou conseguir atingir meus objetivos. Even if it takes me five years, I’ll get to achieve my goals.
The list of conjunctions is long and they require different tenses of the subjunctive (past, future, present). You can check the complete list here (and it is complete).
Trigger # 5 – Indefinite thing + conjunction + verb
This one is very little talked about. If you ask a Brazilian to explain to you why they use the subjunctive in this structure, most of the time they won’t be able to do so.
Perhaps because it resembles a mathematical formula, most people simply skip that in grammar lessons.
Whenever you have the following structure:
indefinite something + conjunction (usually “que”) + verb
The verb goes in the subjunctive, either present or past.
- Não conheço ninguém que fale espanhol. I don’t know anybody who speaks Spanish.
- Há alguém que possa ajudar aqui? É uma emergência! Is there anybody who can help here? It’s an emergency!
- Quero um livro que conte uma história interessante. I want a book that tells an interesting story.
This one may be a bit harder to grasp because Brazilians sometimes don’t use it. And, as I’m going to show you, using the subjunctive isn’t always necessary.
Depending on how certain you are about the situation, you don’t need the subjunctive.
- Eu tenho um livro que conta uma história interessante.
- Há alguém aqui que pode te ajudar.
- Eu conheço alguém que fala espanhol.
In the three situations above, there is no doubt about the object of the discussion. In (1), We know there is a book that tells an interesting story. In (2), we know for a fact someone can help. And in (3), The identity of the Spanish speaker is known, even though the word alguém shows up there.
So, using the subjunctive with this structure will depend on the context.
In the following song in the superb voice of Elis Regina, you see this structure in “eu quero uma casa no campo onde eu + subjunctive”.
Beyond the Triggers of the Subjunctive in Portuguese
The subjunctive is too complex for a single article.
When you master the triggers, you’ll want to learn how to use the future subjunctive (and more triggers).
And the personal infinitive is a lot related to the subjunctive. It also has some of the same triggers but with different structures. It’s something you’ll definitely want to master.
For more on grammar and the subjunctive mood, refer to our comprehensive grammar section.