Ask Luís! (#3): Uses of the gerund in EP

Hello, everyone! I hope you’re all doing well!

This time around, I’m answering a question from Michael Tavares all the way from New Zealand (a message to Portugal doesn’t travel farther than that, since NZ is on the opposite side of the world vis-a-vis the Iberian Peninsula). I believe Michael has some Portuguese blood, so this is an extra special assignment! Anyway, here’s the message:

Olá Luís,

Could you please explain the usage of the gerund in EP?

I already know when NOT to use it in EP, I know it is not used in the progressive sense as it is in BP, Estou bebendo/Estou a beber, but I know that it is used in EP at other times.

Please enlighten us all on when it is used in EP.

Muito obrigado,

Michael Tavares na Nova Zelândia.

Hello, Michael! Thank you so much for reading the blog and for this very pertinent question. I’ll try to be as concise as possible with my answer, which will follow after the jump.

Uses of the gerund in European Portuguese

First of all, while it’s true that standard EP (the language as spoken in the language continuum in central-coastal Portugal between Lisbon and Coimbra) doesn’t use the gerund with estar to form the progressive tense, the same can’t be said of other areas of the country (in Alentejo it’s still quite common).

The cases where the gerund is used in standard EP are:

#1: With a different subset of the progressive with the verbs ir (to go) or vir (to come) + gerund; Ir + gerund is used with actions that develop incrementally over a period of time, vir + gerund with actions that are gradually evolving through stages. [1]

  • À medida que o Sol ia subindo no céu, eles iam lentamente acordando do seu sono. As the sun rose in the sky [bit by bit], they slowly woke up from their sleep.
  • Eles vêm fazendo um bom trabalho. They have been doing a good job.

The sentence with ir is different than ir + infinitive, which a marker of past, present or future intention (English to be going to).

Vir + gerund may also be substituted by ter vindo + a infinitive (in that last example, têm vindo a fazer).

#2: As a separate clause which serves as a complement to the main verb of a sentence, giving the idea of a second, concurrent, progressive or causal action.

  • O Paulo caminhava descalço pelo prado, sentindo a humidade do solo nos seus pés molhados. Paulo walked barefoot through the meadow, feeling the moisture of the soil on his wet feet.
  • Ela corria várias maratonas por ano, tentando sempre melhorar os seus tempos. She ran several marathons per year, always trying to improve her times.
  • Sorrindo para as pessoas que o vieram ver, o Presidente suspirou fundo antes de começar o seu discurso. Smiling to the people who came to watch him, the President took a deep breath before starting his speech.

The most common way of realizing this is by separating the two clauses with a comma.

#3: As a separate clause which serves as a complement to the main verb of a sentence, giving the idea of a continuous process happening either prior to or following the main action.

  • *Dizendo isto, correu em dire(c)ção à porta. In saying this, he ran towards the door. (act of speaking comes immediately before the main action, running)
  • *Entrou na sala, pondo tudo em alvoroço. He/She entered the room, [therefore] causing a ruckus. (pôr em alvoroço means “to disturb; to cause an uproar, a ruckus, a commotion”).

The order of the clauses is essential to understand the timings involved: if the clause with the gerund comes before the main clause, it happened prior to it and vice-versa.

#4: Its compound form (ter + gerund) is used for a finite, completely finished process that occurred either before or after the main action.

  • *Tendo acabado o relatório, fui entregá-lo. Having finished the report, I delivered it.
  • *Entreguei o relatório, tendo o funcionário preenchido uma nota de entrega. I delivered the report, [consequently] the clerk filled in a delivery note.

Just like I explained in rule #3, here too the order of the sentences provides us with the information on whether the gerundive action is anterior or posterior to the main action.

#5: Besides this temporal meaning, the gerund may also be used with a causal or modal meaning.

Causal meaning (why? because of what?):

  • *Tendo chegado atrasada, não consegui entrar. Having arrived late, I couldn’t get inside.
  • Apercebendo-me da confusão, decidi fugir. [After] realizing there was a commotion, I decided to run away.

Modal meaning (how?): Usually substituted with a + infinitive

  • *Ela ganhava a vida [vendendo/a vender] enciclopédias. She earned a living by selling encyclopedias.
  • *Vi uma criança [chorando/a chorar] nos braços da mãe. I saw a child crying in her mother’s arms.


P.S. The explanations and examples for rules #3-5 marked with asterisks (*) were taken from Prontuário Ortográfico e Guia da língua portuguesa by Magnus Bergström & Neves Reis (Lisboa: Editorial Notícias, 2004, 47th edition; pp. 118-119), a Portuguese grammar/topical thesaurus. If you’re interested in purchasing it, the newest edition is the 50th, which already includes the adaptations brought on by the Spelling Reform and more updated information on a variety of topics.

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