You can’t run away from them forever I'm afraid. Those horrible words that refuse to conform to any rules just have to be learned the hard way. I am going to introduce you to a few irregular verbs – the most common ones – as this will greatly increase your ability to express yourself with a limited vocabulary. There are more examples of irregular verbs (fully conjugated in all the tenses) in the reference section at the back of the book.

To Be Or … To Be?

Just to make a difficult situation worse, one of the most common verbs: ‘to be’ is not only irregular in Portuguese (and in English for that matter), it is also translated into 2 different Portuguese verbs, depending on the context.

The slightly more common version is ‘ser’. This is used with reference to defining characteristics, or permanent states. For example, to be male or female is a defining characteristic, so you would use the appropriate conjugation of the verb ‘ser’ to say ‘I am male’ or ‘they are female’.

For non-defining characteristics, or temporary states, you use the word ‘estar’. So you would have to use this word to say something like ‘I am tired’, or ‘she is late’.

The most important question to remember when trying to decide whether to use ser or estar is this: ‘Is what I am talking about a defining characteristic (ser) or not (estar)?’ It is best not just to ask yourself ‘is what I am talking about temporary or permanent?’ – because although often used as a rule of thumb, this does not always work!

For example, when talking about your occupation, you might want to say something like ‘I am a secretary’. Being a secretary, whilst not necessarily a permanent state, is a defining characteristic – something that could be used to identify you as a particular individual. So in this case, you would use ‘ser’. Likewise, to say ‘I will be the chairman of the meeting’ – you are not going to be the chairman of that meeting for the rest of your life, but being the chairman is something that will identify you, so again, ser would be used. You will get some practice on this soon…

Here is the full conjugation in the present tense of both ser and estar:

The second conjugation irregular verb: ser (to be – characteristic)







The first conjugation irregular verb: estar (to be – non-characteristic)







And just for comparison, the same irregular verb in the present tense in English (to be):

I am

we are

you are

you are

he/she/it is

they are

Here are a few more examples...

  • ‘Portuguese is quite an easy language to learn.’ – in this case, ‘easy’ is a word that defines Portuguese (ha ha), so you would use ser.

  • ‘He is asleep.’ – you could not really say that a person can be identified by whether or not they are asleep! So in this case, you would use estar.

  • ‘I am going to be honest.’ – A defining characteristic, so you would use ser.

A very useful verb is ‘to go’. You will find out why this verb is particularly useful shortly. Here is the Portuguese conjugation of this verb in the present tense.

The third conjugation irregular verb: ir (to go)







Here is another common irregular: ‘to have’.

The second conjugation irregular verb: ter (to have)







This verb, ‘ter’, can also be used to mean ‘must’ – in a similar way to the English verb ‘to have’. For example, we might say something like ‘I have to eat’, meaning ‘I must eat’. In Portuguese, you would use ‘ter’ like this: ‘Eu tenho de comer’. Note that the verb ‘eat’ is given in the infinitive, and the word ‘de’ is used between the two verbs (so literally, it is ‘I have of to eat’). Instead of ‘de’, the word ‘que’ is sometimes used, so ‘eu tenho que comer’ means exactly the same thing.

Another very useful irregular verb is ‘to do’ – which in Portuguese (and other European languages) is actually the same as ‘to make’ – so Portuguese speakers learning English have the same trouble with our two verbs ‘to make’ and ‘to do’ as we have with their ‘ser’ and ‘estar’!

The second conjugation irregular verb: fazer (to do; to make)







Just one more! A bit of an odd one, this – ‘haver’. Oh, and, er, before I explain what it means, I have a bit of a confession to make. I lied. You remember earlier on I mentioned that there were 2 different Portuguese words for ‘to be’? Well, that’s not entirely true. There are 3 (well, maybe 4 if you include ‘ficar’, but don’t worry about that).

The second conjugation irregular verb: haver (to be [impersonal]; to have [auxiliary])






‘Impersonal’ means that it does not relate to any grammatical ‘person’. When ‘haver’ is used with a grammatical person, it means ‘to have’ (and is a posh version of the verb ‘ter’, used mainly in writing rather than in speech, and it is only used as an auxiliary verb – i.e. when saying one has to do something). The third person singular form (‘há’) can be translated as ‘there is’ or ‘there are’.

‘Há’ is a useful word to know, although it seems a little awkward to use because it sounds similar to ‘a’ meaning ‘the’ (feminine singular), and the same as ‘a’ meaning ‘to’; and ‘à’ meaning ‘to the’ (feminine singular) – not to mention ‘a’ meaning ‘her’ or ‘it’ (feminine) (which we haven’t discussed yet). Don’t let that put you off though – whenever you want to say ‘there is’ or ‘there are’, use ‘há’ – it will usually be clear what you mean from the context anyway (note: Brazilians sometimes use the word ‘tem’ (‘one has’) instead of ‘há’).

All right, that’s enough for now! Before you start practising these new verbs, let me tell you why ir (to go) is such a useful one to remember. So far, we have been concentrating on verbs in the present tense, to talk about things that are happening now. We will soon be looking at how to express verbs to indicate actions in the past or future, but a nice little short-cut to be able to talk about the future is to prefix the verb you want to use with the appropriate conjugation of ir.

Let's say for example, that you wanted to construct a sentence like this: ‘I will work here.’ This is the future tense, which in English is quite simple – just prefix the verb with ‘will’ – but in Portuguese requires learning a whole new set of conjugations. Instead of learning the future tense, you can just rephrase your sentence like this: ‘I am going to work here.’

The only two exceptions are when the infinitive is also ‘to go’ (‘ir’) or ‘to come’ (‘vir’) – in which case, the infinitive must be omitted to avoid redundancy. For example, ‘I am going to go to the shops’ is ‘vou às lojas’, not ‘vou ir às lojas’, and ‘they are going to come home now’ is ‘eles vêm para casa agora’, not ‘eles vão vir para casa agora’.