A Linguistic Dissection

So, I came across this sentence today in a book on rural development in Brazil:

A pesquisa de Willems é fonte importante de referências para que se compreendam as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais da communidade rural de Cunha, na década de 1940.

If you’re like me, you had to read that at least three times to make any sense of it. This is a perfect example of technical writing in Portuguese. Aside from being a long, cumbersome sentence, there’s all kinds of strange things going on here that make it challenging to read: scientific jargon, subordinate clauses, multiple adjectives, subject-verb inversion, the governed subjunctive, and passive voice using se.

What would happen if we took our grammatical scalpels and tried to ‘dissect’ this sentence? Perhaps we could figure out just what it is that so confuses our English brains… maybe we could identify the particular structures involved, and be on the lookout for them the next time we read something challenging?

[As a couple readers point out below, this sentence is not exactly a shining example of clear, well-written Portuguese. It’s murky academese that even many Brazilians might find challenging. So, you should not feel bad at all if you have difficulty with this, and you should definitely not try to write or speak like this. I chose it simply because I thought it illustrated a bunch of different structures that might trip up English speakers, all squished into one sentence.]

Before doing anything else, let’s clear up some of the technical vocabulary:

Pesquisa can mean either research in general, or a specific scientific study.

Referência means a “reference”, like a reference book.

Uma fonte is a “source” in the abstract sense, like the source of a river or a source of inspiration.

Compreender means to understand or to comprehend.

Para que is a conjunction that means “so that”, “in order to”, as in Ele foi dormir às 8 para que pudesse acordar cedo da madrugada (He went to bed at 8 so that he could get up early in the morning).

as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais = the principal socioeconomic and cultural characteristics

So here’s the whole sentence, translated into English:

A pesquisa de Willems é fonte importante de referências para que se compreendam as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais da communidade rural de Cunha, na década de 1940.

“Willems’ research [or study] is an important source of references for understanding the principal socioeconomic and cultural characteristics of the rural community of Cunha in the 1940s.”

Now let’s break it down phrase by phrase, examining anything unusual we come across.

A pesquisa é fonte importante…   “The research is [an] important source”

Here we might expect A pesquisa é uma fonte importante, but in this case the uma is optional. We see this all the time in Portuguese: Ele é menino chato (He’s [an] annoying boy), Você tem filhos? (Do you have [any] children?), Você está com isqueiro? (Do you have [a] lighter on you?). The um or uma article just gets left out in casual speech, and apparently, as we see here, you can do it even in technical writing.

as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais

the principal socioeconomic and cultural characteristics

Here the word order is all jumbled up from what we would expect in English. The noun características is modified by no less than three adjectives, one of which is placed before the noun and two which are placed after. How do you know whether an adjective goes before or after the noun? Portuguese has very flexible rules about this sort of thing compared to other Romance languages. The majority of adjectives are usually placed after the noun, but could also go before it, in which case the meaning changes slightly (this is a topic for a whole other post, but in general, descriptive or incidental adjectives are placed after the noun, while distinguishing adjectives are placed in front.) However, there are certain adjectives like principal that more often appear before the noun, as in this sentence.

This is the sort of thing that is probably best learned by osmosis, by just listening to and reading a lot of Portuguese, rather than trying to break it down into rules and study it grammatically. Eventually you will develop an instinctive sense of where the adjectives go. For now it’s enough to recognize that there are situations when adjectives go before the noun and situations when they go after.

Notice too that, regardless of where the adjectives go, they all have to agree with the noun in gender and number. Adjectives that end in -al (an “ow” sound in English), like principal and cultural, don’t have different gendered forms, but they do have similar plural forms: the -al becomes -ais.

…para que se compreendam as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais

This is the most interesting (and confusing) phrase in the whole sentence. But it’s worth studying because it illustrates some troublesome structures that occur frequently in technical and business writing.

If we translated this phrase literally, it would be something awkward like, “in order for the principal socioeconomic and cultural characteristics to be understood”. Note the use of the passive voice, “to be understood”. A less literal but more sensible translation would be “for understanding the principal socioeconomic and cultural characteristics”.

There are actually three different structures in this phrase that make it difficult to parse. Let’s look at them each individually:

1. SubjectVerb inversion

If you’re confused about what the subject of this phrase is, there’s a good reason. The subject and verb have traded places – what’s known as a syntactic inversion. Normally in Portuguese, the order is Subject then Verb, as is (usually) true in English. But here, the verb compreender-se comes *before* its admittedly wordy subject, as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais. If we restore the usual word order, we get para que as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais se compreendam.

This type of inversion happens all the time in written Portuguese – in newspaper articles, novels, scientific writing. I’ve also noticed that it’s a frequent stumbling block that my brain trips over while reading. Every so often I’ll come to a sentence that just doesn’t seem to parse – I end up reading it over and over, unable to figure out basic syntactical information like what the subject of the sentence is. Subject-verb inversion is now the first thing I look for when I get to a sentence like this.

2. The passive voice using se

We are usually taught that reflexive pronouns me, te, se in Romance languages are stand-ins for the English words “myself/yourself/itself/himself/herself/ themselves”, and that they are used with certain verbs where someone is doing an action to or upon themselves. In other words, they’re used where the subject and object of a verb are the same, as in Ele se levanta (He gets [himself] up) or Eu me chamo Lauren (I call [myself] Lauren).

But there is another way in which se in particular is used, and that is to form certain passive-voice constructions. Perhaps you have seen signs in Latin American countries saying SE VENDE, meaning For Sale. Or how about the phrase:

Se vendem carros aqui     [= Carros se vendem aqui]

I’ve written this phrase two ways, the first using subject-verb inversion and the second without. But carros is the subject no matter which way you write it. Literally, this phrase translates to “Cars sell themselves here”. But what is really meant is “Cars are sold here”. These two uses of se are definitely related: it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to get from “Cars sell themselves here” to “Cars are sold here”. In English, of course, we’d probably just say “Cars for Sale”.

Notice that the passive voice using se and subject-verb inversion often occur together: Carros se vendem is not technically wrong, but the most common usage is Se vendem carros. Perhaps this is because, although carros is technically the subject of the phrase, it is also intuitively the object, the thing that is being sold, so it takes the traditional place of the object after the verb. (Also note that Se Vende has become so idiomatic that even subject-verb agreement is often abandoned in certain contexts; you might ask Quantos carros se vendem em Portugal por ano? – How many cars are sold in Portugal each year? – but a sign on a business might just say Se Vende Carros, ignoring the fact that carros is plural).

Here’s another passive voice example using se + subject-verb inversion:

Essa é uma fábrica onde se faz celular (This is a factory where cell phones are made, or, This is a factory where they make cell phones)

Here, the singular celular stands in for the category of cell phones in general, as it often does in Portuguese, though in English we have to use the plural “cell phones”. Notice that you could say the same thing in Portuguese using ser + the past participle, a construction known as the “true passive voice”: Essa é uma fábrica onde celulares são feitas, which parallels the English passive voice word-for-word. But (and I could be wrong here) my hunch is that in this particular sentence, the true passive voice sounds slightly awkward, while the sentence with se is more colloquial and “Brazilian”. Portuguese native speakers, feel free to chime in in the comments.

When you come across phrases like these — se vendem carros, se fazem computadores, se [verb] [noun] — the challenge is to mentally flip the noun and verb around and think “[noun] is [verb]ed”. Try it with this example:

O Brasil é um país onde se bebe muita cerveja.

How would you translate this into English? “Brazil is a country where a lot of beer is drunk” is one option which preserves the use of the passive voice. It’s important to realize that while this sounds quite awkward in English, it sounds just fine in Portuguese, where passive voice constructions like these are very common in formal speech and writing. But because it does sound awkward in English, a better translation would avoid the passive voice entirely, using “people” or “they” as the generic subject: “Brazil is a country where many people drink beer.” Or even: “They drink a lot of beer in Brazil.” Of course, you could avoid the passive voice in Portuguese too and just say Muita gente bebe cerveja no Brasil.

3. Conjunction + Present Subjunctive

Returning to the original phrase, the final thing to notice is the conjunction para que (“in order to”, “so that”). Like most conjunctions involving que, the verb that comes after must be in the subjunctive mood — in this case the present subjunctive. When it comes to regular verbs, the present subjunctive is pretty easy — you just change the verb into its conjugal opposite and conjugate it normally. –ar verbs turn into -er verbs, and -er and -ir verbs turn into -ar verbs. Since compreender is a regular -er verb, the present subjunctive uses –ar endings. So we get se compreendam rather than se compreendem.

…na década de 1940

This is, of course, just a way of saying “in the 1940s”. The more common way of saying this in speech would be nos anos 40, which is like saying “in the 40s”.

Whew! Now that we’re finally done analyzing our one sentence, let’s read it one more time:

A pesquisa de Willems é fonte importante de referências para que se compreendam as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais da communidade rural de Cunha, na década de 1940.

If you made it through all of that, congratulations! If not, don’t worry — this is pretty advanced stuff, and many students pick it up without having to explicitly study it. Now’s a good chance to go read a book or a newspaper article in Portuguese, and be on the lookout for subject-verb inversions, the passive voice using se, para que + the subjective, adjectives coming before vs. after nouns, and “missing” um‘s and uma‘s.

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8 Responses to A Linguistic Dissection

  1. erikspen says:

    In my non-expert view, the use of the subjunctive wasn’t necessary and can be replaced with the infinitive. Also, if we add “um” fonte (which makes it more similar to English phrasing, but I think it’s still fine)

    A pesquisa de Willems é um fonte importante de referências para compreender as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais da communidade rural de Cunha, na década de 1940.

    • erikspen says:

      oops, “uma” fonte. I’ve actually seen ‘um fonte’ a few times, enough to get confused.

      …and to be clear, one must replace ‘para que’ with just ‘para’ to use the infinitive.

    • Lauren says:

      Your version is definitely much clearer, and I think any good editor would prefer it to the original. I picked that sentence because I thought it was a good example of ‘academese’ in Portuguese — unnecessarily complex and long-winded language with lots of gratuitous passive voice and subjunctives. Even if it’s poor style, it’s good for readers to be able to decipher it when they come across it, because so much technical/business writing is written like that.

      The para vs. para que is a good point. Brazilians, who will take any excuse to avoid the subjunctive, seem to prefer the Preposition + Infinitive formulation (para eu ser feliz) over Conjunction + Subjunctive Clause (para que eu seja feliz), at least in speech. But maybe in technical writing there is pressure to use the subjunctive so as to sound more educated.

      • erikspen says:

        I once knew someone studying translation who was often asked to translate an abstract to English (required for a thesis). After looking at some of them, the one thing that stood out was the tendency to create really long sentences full of commas as if (?) there were an upper limit imposed. Not kidding, sometimes 1 sentence was split into 3 for the translation to look natural in English.

        Not sure why this style was preferred, though sometimes excessive use of commas is to make adjectives more clear, such as:

        O objectivo é aumentar, rapidamente, o reconhecimento passivo de…

        would be:

        The goal is to quickly build a passive recognition of…

    • Michael Ligorio says:

      Agreed. The rules state that the subjunctive must follow ‘para que’, but there is no rule that states that you must use this conjunction to join the two sentences clauses.

      “A pesquisa de Willems é uma fonte importante de referências, que já ofereceu um conhecimento das principais características socioeconômicas e culturais da communidade rural de Cunha, na década de 1940.”

  2. V. H. says:

    I’m a native Brazillian Portuguese speaker that stumbled upon your blog and, gotta say, it’s kinda funny to see people struggling with that kind of sentence. To be honest, I would probably need to read it more than once as well. It’s very common technical language, and it sucks (not sure why that’s so prevalent in Portuguese, though. In English technical writing long-winded hard-to-read sentences happen too, but a lot less frequently, at least in my field of Psychology).

  3. Michael Ligorio says:

    “as principais características socioeconômicas e culturais”

    The French would write the above phrase the same way. That is, they would place the noun and the adjectives in the same positions as in the Portuguese sentence. But, there is a way for English speakers (me) to rationalize it. Just imagine that the words socioeconomical and cultural are parenthetic.

    The principal characteristics, socioeconomical and cultural, of the rural community of Cunha.

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