LearningPortuguese

Verb Conjugation

Verbs form the backbone of any language, as they are the means by which we can describe things that have happened, are happening, would happen, or will happen. As such, they are also the most complicated type of word, and can take on many different forms for different purposes. By modifying the infinitive form of a verb, we derive further words that retain the basic meaning of the infinitive, but identify:

  1. the person or thing performing the action, and

  2. the time or conditions under which it is performed.

Verb conjugation is concerned with the first of these aspects – i.e. who or what performs the action (the second aspect is the ‘tense’ of the verb, which is addressed later – for now, we will stick with the present tense). The word ‘conjugation’ just means ‘joining together’, and in this context refers to the construction of verb forms by joining different endings to the ‘stem’ of a verb. This will become clearer as you start to look at the sample conjugations below.

In English, we tend to use nouns and pronouns to explicitly identify who or what performs an action – for example, ‘I read’; ‘you go’; ‘John does’ etc. Our verb forms do not change as much as those in Portuguese, where the verb form itself implies who or what is performing the action (thus sometimes eliminating the need for nouns and pronouns where they would be used in English).

The vast majority of verbs in any language will follow a set of rules regarding the form used in any given situation. These are referred to as regular or ‘weak’ verbs. Irregular (or ‘strong’) verbs are those that do not follow the usual rules, and these have to be learned individually. Unfortunately, the most commonly used verbs in any language are usually also the irregular ones – so it does require a bit of effort in learning irregulars before you can construct meaningful sentences.

The following is a sample conjugation of the English regular verb: ‘to work’.

English: to work

I work

we work

you work

you work

he/she/it works

they work

Note that the only time the word ‘work’ is changed, is when we say ‘he’, ‘she’, or ‘it’ works – where we add an ‘s’ on the end.

Also, in the above conjugations, the words are presented in 2 columns. The first represents singular forms, and the second is for plural forms. So, the plural of ‘I work’ is ‘we work’, the plural of ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it works’ is ‘they work’, and the plural of ‘you work’ remains the same (in English we no longer differentiate between ‘you’ singular and ‘you’ plural – in old English, the plural pronoun was ‘ye’).

The ‘I’ and ‘we’ forms are referred to as the ‘first person’ (because they refer to the speaker), ‘you’ is the ‘second person’ (because it refers to the person being spoken to), and ‘he/she/it/they’ are the ‘third person’ (because they relate to a third-party who is not being addressed). So, ‘we work’ can be referred to as ‘the first person plural form from the verb to work’.

In Portuguese, we find that every form of the verb is different. The Portuguese equivalent of ‘to work’ is ‘trabalhar’, and it is conjugated like this:

Portuguese: trabalhar

trabalho

trabalhamos

trabalhas

trabalhais

trabalha

trabalham

Even though in Portuguese the verb form changes for each ‘person’, and in English it changes for the third person singular only, there are some letters which are always there – for example, in Portuguese, all of the forms of ‘trabalhar’ start with the letters ‘trabalh’. This portion of the word is known as the ‘stem’ – and for regular verbs, it remains the same regardless of the conjugation or tense. With irregular verbs however, the stem can change (in which case they are referred to as ‘radical-changing’ or ‘stem-changing’ verbs).

Almost all infinitives in Portuguese end with either ‘ar’, ‘er’, or ‘ir’ – even for irregular verbs. The most common ending is ‘ar’, and the least common is ‘ir’. These different types of verb are categorised: ‘ar’ verbs are referred to as ‘the first conjugation’, ‘er’ verbs are ‘the second conjugation’, and ‘ir’ verbs are the ‘third conjugation’.

A handful of verbs have an infinitive ending with ‘or’ (eg. pôr, compor), but these are so rare that they do not qualify for a category of their own. They have evolved from 2nd conjugation verbs (‘pôr’ used to be ‘pôer’) so they are still classed as belonging to the 2nd conjugation.

I will explain more about the personal pronouns that can accompany these verbs later, but here are the basic pronouns that you might need to use with verb conjugations:

English

Portuguese

I

eu

we

nós

you

tu

you (plural)

vós (now obsolete)

he/she

ele/ela

they

eles/elas

So to put them in context:

Portuguese: trabalhar

eu trabalho

nós trabalhamos

tu trabalhas

vós trabalhais

ele trabalha

eles trabalham

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