Articles are a frequent source of despair for Portuguese learners. You not only need to memorize a lot of forms (for a feminine individual, for a group of masculine subjects, etc.), but you also need to know when to use a certain kind, a different kind, or none at all.
More often than not, the rules differ from English. Even students who have been learning and speaking Portuguese for quite a while and have mastered other areas of the language are often detected as non-native because of the mistakes they make with articles.
So, what are articles?
Articles are little words that come before nouns and tell us a lot of information about them. By looking at an article, you're able to know if it's:
- feminine or masculine
- singular or plural
- something known or unknown for the speaker
- O carro do meu vizinho é grande e bonito.
- Os meninos jogam futebol.
- As cadeiras são azuis.
- A professora está contente.
We know that carro (car) is a masculine noun because of the article o. I strongly recommend learning new nouns with their articles. This way you won't have trouble remembering if they are masculine or feminine.
Before we go on with indefinite articles, there are a few things I want you to remember about definite articles:
When you use a definite article following the prepositions a, em or de, you need to contract them. It is not something informal or optional as is the case with contractions in English, but rather it is the only option. For example:
- a + a(s) = à(s)
- a + o(s) = ao(s)
- de + a(s) = da(s)
- de + o(s) = do(s)
- em + a(s) = na(s)
- em + o(s) = no(s)
- Os meninos vão a a praia. > Os meninos vão à praia.
- Os meninos foram a o parque. > Os meninos foram ao parque.
- Os meninos gostam de o futebol. > Os meninos gostam de futebol.
- Os meninos jogam em o parque. > Os meninos jogam no parque.
Most words that end in o are masculine, just as most words ending in a are feminine. This will help you figure out which article should be used. However, there are some exceptions, and here are some examples:
- o clima (the weather)
- o drama (the drama)
- o pijama (the pajamas)
- a mão (the hand)
- a canção (the song)
- a paixão (the passion)
In contrast to Spanish, we don’t change the article in the singular feminine form. We keep the same form. For example:
- a água (the water)
- A águia foi à água. The eagle went to the water.
Now let's move on to indefinite articles.
- Um aluno fez uma pregunta.
- Compraremos uns pães para comer esta tarde.
- Visitei umas amigas ontem.
When you use an indefinite article following the prepositions em or de, you need to contract them. It is not something informal or optional as is the case with contractions in English, but rather it is the only option. For example:
- em + um/uns = num/nuns
- em + uma(s) = numa(s)
- de + um/uns = dum/duns
- de + uma(s) = duma(s)
- Os meninos jogam em um campo. > Os meninos jogam num campo.
- Os meninos gostam de um jogo qualquer. > Os meninos gostam dum jogo qualquer.
- Os meninos precisam de umas bolas de futebol. > Os meninos precisam dumas bolas de futebol.
Now, the fun part… When are they used?
We use definite articles when we:
1. Talk about something in particular
- A minhã mãe chama-se Rosa.
We use a minha mãe because she is my only mother. There isn’t any other mother.
- O telhado da minha casa é vermelho.
My house has only one roof and I have only one house.
- O João foi às compras.
There are, in fact, many Johns, but I’m talking about that specific John. That’s why we always use the definite article when referring to people.
2. Have mentioned something before or that is present while we talk
- O Carlos comprou uma mesa nova. A mesa é grande e moderna.
As we have previously mentioned that Carlos has bought a new table, we can now refer to it as A mesa because it is the only table we are talking about.
We use indefinite articles when:
1. There are many other things like the one we are talking about
- Quero beber uma cerveja.
There are many beers in the world and many beers in the fridge!
- Cristina, podes emprestar-me uma caneta?
Cristina has many sheets of paper. I just want one, any one of them!
2. It is the first time we talk about something
Remember the sentence we used in the previous section?
- O Carlos comprou uma mesa nova. A mesa é grande e moderna.
The first time we talk about Carlos’ table, we use uma mesa.
- Os meus amigos escreveram-me uma carta a partir de Berlim.
Afterwards, I will tell you something about that letter and I will use a carta. But as this is the first time we are talking about it and you don't know what letter it is, I use uma carta.
Yes, this gets even better! There are some situations in which Portuguese doesn't require an article before a noun. Some of them are collocations, and some of them are exceptions. Let's see some of them!
- Certain places and planets: Lisbon, Portugal, Mars, Jupiter (NOT Earth)
- A Terra vem depois de Vénus e antes de Marte.
- Lisboa é a capital de Portugal.
- Languages: falar Espanhol, escrever em Chinês, entender Francês
- Falas muito bem Português!
- Lamento, não entendo Alemão, não posso ajudar-te.
- Means of transport (when you use the preposition de)
- Vou para casa de carro.
- Viajaremos no outono ao Brasil e iremos de avião.
- Some famous people (Jesus, Maria, Colombo)
- Jesus era filho de Maria.
- Colombo era português.
On the contrary, there are situations where English doesn't use articles and Portuguese does :
- Days of the week: In English we say “on Monday,” but days of the week in Portuguese need the article (weekdays are feminine and weekend days are masculine).
- Terei um jantar importante no sábado.
- As segundas-feiras são os piores dias da semana.
- Generic nouns: “Lions” in a general sense, such as in sentences like, “Lions live in Africa” don't need an article in English. They do in Portuguese.
- Os leões vivem em África.
- O álcool é mau para a saúde.
- Streets, avenues, parks:
- Vivo na Rua do Sol.
- Passamos a tarde no Campo Grande.
If all this still sounds difficult to you, I recommend reading more in Portuguese. If you're an absolute beginner, try graded readers or read other students' notebook entries (better if they have been corrected). Try to identify all the articles and the reasons for using them.
If you are already able to read authentic material without going nuts, try doing the same with newspapers or magazines that suit your interests. I swear there are magazines about virtually anything! The same applies not only to written materials but also to audio, visual, or audiovisual, including podcasts, movies, and TV shows.
Soon you won't have to think about all those rules and it will come naturally. I promise!