What preposition do I use with this verb?

Prepositions are those little words that often follow a verb and describe how the verb relates to whatever it is acting upon – words like de, em, a, com, para, por, sobre.

One of the trickier things about romance languages is remembering what prepositions to use with each verb. Sometimes they make sense to us English speakers (falar de/sobre), sometimes they don’t (pensar em??), and sometimes you have multiple options to express different nuances in meaning and language registers.

Here’s a fascinating example of that latter point. As explained by John Whitlam in Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar, the various prepositions used with the verb ir (“to go”) mark the level of formality of the discourse:

  • ir a          (formal, writing only)
  • ir para   (neutral, writing and speech)
  • ir em      (informal, speech only)

The choice of preposition with ir may also express nuances such as whether the speaker is talking about a short- versus a long-distance trip, and whether it will be a brief stopover versus a longer-term relocation. Finally, the choice of preposition varies across dialects: a European speaker would be more likely to say ir a, while a Brazilian speaker would prefer ir para or ir em.

As another example, notice how opposing verb pairs can require different prepositions:

  • concordar com alguém   (to agree with someone)
  • discordar de alguém       (to disagree with someone)
  • acabar de fazer algo       (to have just finished doing something)
  • começar a fazer algo       (to start doing something)

With all this complexity, it’s amazing how many textbooks and dictionaries barely say anything at all about verb-governed prepositions, or just teach you to say ir a with no further comment (and this is one reason why having a good, up-to-date grammar reference is essential).

If you have a good dictionary, usually it will have some example sentences to help you figure out what preposition to use with a verb in each context. But often you need more detail. There are two great online resources for this: the Corpus do Português, and Linguee.com

Corpus do Português

The screencast below shows how to use the Corpus do Português to find out what preposition to use with an example verb, deparar-se.


And here’s a screencast of how to answer the same question using Linguee.

6 Responses to What preposition do I use with this verb?

  1. Brett says:

    Many thanks for the videos on these two helpful websites. I visit Hacking Portuguese regularly, and find it more helpful than polling online Brazilian friends because the lessons come from the POV of a native English speaker. It’s nearly impossible to communicate the basis for some of the questions generated when learning Portuguese to a native because there’s no common context. Which prepositions to use with which verb is an excellent example of this. In fact I asked a friend from Rio this morning for some general guidelines on the use of por and para, and he said it was too complicated to explain, and that reading Portuguese books and articles would provide the best method for understanding the uses. It’s reasonable advice, but I would like to become fluent sometime this decade! Thanks again for your generosity in providing this magnificent site.

    • Lauren says:

      Thank you Brett! I completely agree that in some ways, it is easier to learn from a native English speaker who can explain things in reference to the shared native language. As good as my tutors and professores have been, sometimes they don’t know how to explain things the way that my brain wants, or they don’t understand the nuances of the problem I am grappling with. That’s why I endorse programs like Tá Falado, which combine the expertise of native Portuguese speakers and a native-English speaking teacher who can anticipate the trouble spots.

      I also think that if you’re going to teach a language (and this applies equally to Americans teaching English abroad), it’s not enough to just be a native speaker. You have to be reasonably fluent in the native language of your students. And you have to have studied the grammar of the language you are teaching inside and out. Only then can you teach the language in a way that will make sense to your students.

  2. Robert says:

    The only real way to learn is to go there. Failing that, once basics are understood, conversational sessions. I am having difficulties with adjectives and prepositions. É difícil ….

  3. Ioanna says:

    For some reason I cannot find USD english and BR portuguese in the given options as per Linguee.com.
    Please advice because BR portuguese has difference from EU Portuguese.
    Thank you in advance!

    • Lauren says:

      Hi Ioanna, Linguee unfortunately only offer European portuguese, probably because most of its source texts are EU documents. However, I still find it useful.

  4. James says:

    Such a great post. I didn’t know about corpusdoportuguese before this! Verb-governed prepositions are interesting to me BUT almost impossible to explain ;-)

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