Start using the subjunctive in Portuguese!

subjunctive in Portuguese

Many students have already told me they understand the subjunctive but find it hard to use. And by find it hard to use I mean they can’t find an opportunity to put the subjunctive in their phrases when they are speaking Portuguese. These students are normally Intermediate who can hold good conversations in Portuguese and are not native speakers of a romance language.

If that’s your situation, keep reading because I’ll tell you how to start including  it in your conversations. 

The other day, during a lesson a student asked me if I could go to Lisbon. It’s just after lockdown when I’m writing this blog post, but still pandemic:

Student: Você pode ir a Lisboa?
Me: Mesmo que eu pudesse, eu não iria.

And that’s when I started thinking about it. My student asked me a question that I could simply reply with SIM or NÃO plus some explanation. Instead, I gave him a conjunction phrase (mesmo que), imperfect subjunctive (pudesse),  and a conditional (iria). 

So why did I do that to my student? Do I hate my students? Nooo!
The short answer is: because I am a native speaker and I make use of the language I have available to express myself. When we give this kind of answer, we are not only answering the question but also adding our personal view or opinion!

Also, as a teacher in a lesson, I wouldn’t give this answer to a student who hasn’t started learning imperfect subjunctive yet.

When intermediate students tell me they find it hard to use the subjunctive in their conversations, I tell them it’s because before they were used to a more concrete form of speaking to express real actions and situations.

With indicative, you can talk about your daily life, what you did or plan to do. You can retell something you read or watched. Yes, it’s possible to communicate in Portuguese without using Subjunctive, but you’ll be limited.

Some steps to add Subjunctive tenses to your speaking:

Learn the tenses

Subjunctive has 6 tenses in Portuguese and they are all used. Some are more used than the others. Here they are (composto means you need to use auxiliary ter or haver to form the tense):

  • Presente estude
  • Pretérito Imperfeito estudasse
  • Pretérito Perfeito (composto) tenha estudado
  • Pretérito Mais-Que-Perfeito (composto) tivesse estudado
  • Futuro do Presente estudar
  • Futuro do Presente (composto) tiver estudado

But you don’t have to learn all the tenses to start using Subjunctive. As soon as you learn Espero que or Tomara que + presente do subjuntivo you can add them to your range of words to use.

Also be careful because the names of the tenses in subjunctive don’t mean they express “present, past, and future”. Presente do subjuntivo can express the future. Or Pretérito Imperfeito can express the present. 

See these examples:

  • Caso ele não chegue na hora amanhã, vamos começar a reunião sem ele.

Caso: when you use this conjunction, you’ll need to use presente do subjuntivo even though the meaning of the sentence is future!

  • Se eu soubesse grego, eu mudaria para a Grécia.

This sentence with Imperfeito do Subjuntivo (soubesse) implies that right now I don’t know Greek so I won’t move to Greece. 

Learn the conjunctions and when to use them

When you study the subjunctive tenses you have to learn how to use them, for example: after impersonal expressions (é bom que, é importante que, etc), or verbs expressing emotion (tenho medo que, etc), or after certain conjunctions. You’ll start learning the meaning of many conjunctions, such as desde que or contanto que that express a condition: Ele vai montar os móveis da casa desde que eu o pague adiantado. It’s important to notice the condition in the example.

Or mesmo que in my answer to the student: Mesmo que eu pudesse, eu não iria. Mesmo que, embora, ainda que, etc all have the same meaning and they are used to show that even if something is true (mesmo que eu pudesse), another situation remains the same (eu não iria).

And yes, there are lists of conjunctions to use with each tense. You are not going to use caso with future subjunctive or se and enquanto with the present subjunctive. They wouldn’t make sense in the sentence.

Practice, practice, practice.

Here you have some ideas to practice and start including the subjunctive in your speaking:

  • As you learn new subjunctive tenses, conjunctions, and phrases write down sentences with them that you’d say in your native language or you’d like to say in Portuguese. For example: if you like to use como se a lot in your native language, write down examples with como se in Portuguese: ele falou comigo como se ele fosse o dono do lugar
  • When you read (or listen to, but I know it’s harder) anything, pay attention to conjunctions and subjunctive and how it’s used.
  • Listen to some music, read and complete the lyrics with the subjunctive.
  • But most important, force yourself to use it. If someone asks you simple questions, answer with a more complex structure. This is how you’ll practice these sentences, by using them. 
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See these examples:

– Você foi ver a banda que tocou no parque no sábado?
Correct, but simple answer: Fui / Não fui
Elaborate answer: Eu iria se não tivesse chovido tanto.

– Vocês vão viajar este ano?
Correct, but simple answer: Vamos. / Não vamos.
Elaborate answer: Nós vamos viajar este ano nem que seja a última coisa que façamos. Não aguentamos mais ficar em casa depois da quarentena.

– Você sabe aonde a Joana foi?
Correct, but simple answer: Sei / Não sei
Elaborate answer: Não sei, mas se soubesse também não te falaria.

You can answer the questions above, or as I said before, talk about real actions and situations with the indicative only, but you can add more to your speaking by making an effort and say more complex structures.

I hope this blog post resonates with you and you start using the subjunctive tenses soon!!