Portuguese ProTip: talking about hypothetical situations

->This is an Advanced ProTip

In the last ProTip, we looked at how shifting the tense of a verb in certain types of statements can alter the formality of our speech, without changing the meaning. In this tip, we’ll look at how changing the tenses of verbs in hypothetical statements can signal subtle cues about how realistic or serious we’re being about the hypothetical situation.

Before we dive in, let’s do a quick refresher on the subjunctive. There are three main subjunctive tenses in Portuguese: present, imperfect and future. Here are all the subjunctive tenses for the verb ser (“to be”):

  • Present subjunctive: seja, sejamos, sejam
  • Imperfect subjunctive: fosse, fossemos, fossem
  • Future subjunctive: for, formos, forem

First of all, you’ll notice there are only three forms for each tense – that’s because the eu and você/ele/ela forms are always the same in the subjunctive. This means it’s actually pretty easy to learn the subjunctive, at least for regular verbs.

In this lesson we’re going to be focusing on the imperfect and the future forms specifically, so just keep in mind what they look like. Don’t worry if you don’t know these forms cold. The imperfect subjunctive is always easy to recognize, because of the distinctive -sse endings. The future subjunctive is usually easy to recognize, too, because for regular verbs, it looks just like the infinitive, with a couple different endings slapped on for the nós and vocês forms.

Ok. Now let’s ask the question, what’s the difference between these three statements?

1. Agora que eu sou presidente, vou trabalhar pra reduzir a taxa de desmatamento em Rondônia. (Now that I am president, I will work to reduce the rate of deforestation in Rondônia)

2. Se eu fosse presidente, trabalharia pra reduzir a taxa de desmatamento em Rondônia. (If I were president, I would work to reduce the rate of deforestation in Rondônia)

3. Se eu for presidente, vou trabalhar pra reduzir a taxa de desmatamento em Rondônia. (If I am president, I will work to reduce the rate of deforestation in Rondônia)

For now, let’s just consider the first part of each sentence, the part before the comma. The first sentence starts out by asserting a simple fact: Eu sou presidente. We infer from this that the speaker is, in fact, the president.

But both #2 and #3 ask us to consider not a fact but a hypothetical situation that is not true in the present time: What if I were president? #2 frames this situation as a distant and unlikely possibility (It’s highly unlikely I will ever be president of Brazil, but let’s pretend for the moment that I am), while #3 suggests that it is not only possible but likely to be true in the future (I am not the president, but I could be if you vote for me this fall). #2 is something anyone could say, while #3 would only make sense coming from a person running for president.

In Portuguese,  the subjunctive mood is used for both types of hypothetical statements. You may already know that the subjunctive is often used for statements that are hypothetical or not yet realized (some linguists call these contrafactual statements). But let’s go a step further. As we just saw above, the tense of the subjunctive can say something about how likely you consider that hypothetical situation to be.

You can use the imperfect subjunctive when you’re talking about something you consider remote, unlikely or even impossible, or something that you’re talking about in a purely speculative way:

Se você se mudasse pra o Brasil, teria que aprender português. (If you moved to Brazil, you’d have to learn Portuguese)

In English, we show that we’re talking purely hypothetically by using the past subjunctive tense of the verb (If I were president; If you moved to Brazil).

And you can use the future subjunctive when you’re talking about something that is more of a tangible possibility:

Se você se mudar pra o Brasil, tem que me visitar! (If you move to Brazil, you have to come visit me!)

The future subjunctive in Portuguese is almost always found after the words Se and Quando when they’re used to express this kind of likely future possibility. In English, we use the regular old present tense for these kind of statements.

Note that the difference in this example is more subtle. Both are hypothetical possibilities (the person might move to Brasil in the future, but they haven’t made a final decision yet). But in the first statement, it’s still a very speculative and remote possibility. In the second, it is something they are thinking about more seriously, that is likely to happen at some point. So by using different subjunctive tenses, you can signal how serious is the idea that you’re floating.

Now let’s look at the second half of each sentence.

…………………………………formal           neutral           informal

1. Se eu fosse presidente, trabalharia/ia trabalhar/trabalhava pra reduzir a taxa de desmatamento em Rondônia. (If I were president, I would work to reduce the rate of deforestation in Rondônia)

………………………………formal            neutral

2. Se eu for presidente, trabalharei/vou trabalhar pra reduzir a taxa de desmatamento em Rondônia. (If I am president, I will work to reduce the rate of deforestation in Rondônia)

In each case, the tense you use in the second clause is determined by the tense you used in the first. But here you have some control over the formality of the statement. In the first, ‘purely hypothetical’ situation, the most technically correct choice is to use the conditional trabalharia, which makes sense because we use the conditional in English too (“would work”). But if you’ve read the previous ProTip on the interchangeable conditional and the imperfect, you know that the conditional sounds rather formal in speech, and that anytime you have the conditional, you can replace it with either the imperfect (trabalhava in this case) or the imperfect of ir plus the infinitive (ia trabalhar), both of which sound more natural in everyday conversation.

In the second, ‘tangible possibility’ example, you are talking about something that might actually become true in the future. This means that to be technically correct, you should use a future indicative tense, either the simple future (trabalharei) or the compound future (vou trabalhar). But in certain informal situations, many speakers use the regular present tense, as in:

Se você se mudar pra o Brasil, tem que me visitar!

which is what English speakers do too. You could certainly say vai ter que me visitar! but it would sound a bit stiff.

Another situation when you might use these structures is when you’re making a suggestion to someone. Once way to make a suggestion in Portuguese is to use a formula like E se você [verb in the subjunctive]…? which roughly translates to “What if you did such and such?”

You can control how tentative or straightforward your suggestion sounds by changing the tense of the subjunctive that you use. Compare these two suggestions for dealing with a difficult coworker:

1. E se você procurasse outro emprego? (“What if you looked for a new job?”)

2. E se você falar pra sua colega? (“What if you just talk to your coworker?”)

In the first case, finding a new job is a fairly drastic step. Putting the verb procurar in the imperfect subjunctive shows that the suggestion is meant to be taken very hypothetically. You do not necessarily expect the person you’re talking to to take your advice. Your suggestion could even be a joke.

In the second case, talking to a coworker is a more straightforward suggestion. Putting the verb falar in the future subjunctive shows that you consider this suggestion to be earnest, realistic, and perhaps obvious. You think this advice is something the person you’re talking to is likely to follow.

This difference is expressed in English by using the past tense (looked) for the more tentative suggestion versus the present tense (talk) for the straightforward suggestion.

So to wrap up, by choosing your words carefully, you can give subtle cues about how serious or realistic you’re being when you talk about a hypothetical situation or course of action.

Use Se + the imperfect subjunctive when you’re talking about a situation or suggestion that is:

  • purely hypothetical
  • speculative
  • a remote possibility
  • impossible
  • a joke / not meant to be taken seriously

Use Se + the future subjunctive when you’re talking about a situation or suggestion that is:

  • likely to occur in the future or at least plausible
  • realistic
  • straightforward
  • obvious
  • meant to be taken seriously
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11 Responses to Portuguese ProTip: talking about hypothetical situations

  1. Michael Ligorio says:

    Excellent explanation. I have considerable experience with other Romance languages, such as French and Spanish, but I have only just begun to study Brazilian Portuguese. The Portuguese approach is similar to Spanish, but different in that you can switch between two different modes of the subjunctive in order to reflect how certain you are about a future possibility.

  2. Jonathan Porter says:

    Thanks so much for this helpful explanation! I’ve been trying to distinguish between the future and imperfect subjunctive forms and this was a great explanations and lots of examples to show it in practice.
    Muito obrigado!

  3. Amaka Umunna says:

    This is probably the most comprehensive explanation that I have found so far on the subjunctive.

    Obrigada viu!

  4. Frances says:

    My difficulty is in understanding when to use the Present Subjunctive and when to use the Future Subjunctive in European Portuguese, since the PS can also look to the future. Can you help please?

    • Lauren says:

      Hi Frances! Excellent question. I agree, it is confusing because as you noted the present subjective is also oriented to the future:
      e.g. Espero que alguém aproveite da sua oferta — I someone [will] take advantage of your offer

      But there’s actually an easy rule for this. The future subjunctive is really only ever used after two words: “se” and “quando”.

      Preciso de ajuda, se você tiver tempo — I need help, if you have time
      Me liga quando você chegar — Call me when you arrive.

      Everywhere, else you use the present (or I guess some other tense) of the subjunctive.


  5. Thomas says:

    What about estar?

  6. Riccardo says:

    Excellent! But what about the third type? That is:

    “if I had know the truth, I would have been happier”

  7. Oporto Ligura says:

    That’s really helpful, and thouroughly explained! Thanks a lot!!!!

  8. Frederick says:

    Great explanation! Thanks.

  9. Michael says:

    Amazing explanation! Just found this site and I am quite impressed. Now I need to scour it for more kernels of Portuguese knowledge.

  10. Simon says:

    At last a clear , encouraging input on the subjunctive. Great job. Keep going!

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