Ask Luís! (#10): Clitic position in Portuguese

Hello, everyone! This time we have a question from Michael João, a Kiwi-Portuguese with some very pertinent questions about clitic pronouns:

Kia ora Luis!

Michael here from New Zealand again.

Thank you for your answer about the progressive tense and the use of the gerund in EU Portuguese.

I recently spent 6 weeks in Portugal, and managed to celebrate Santo Antonio in Lisbon and São João in Braga!! Era uma experiênca para a vida inteira!

tenho uma nova pergunta:

Clitics, or the time when the object is stuck to the end of the verb with a hyphen (technical term usage here)

I’d love to know when to use it, and when to put the object before the verb, if there is a rule or a guide, to make sure I can construct sentences like a native.

Memrise (Portuguese: Portugal) give me: “não tinha a intenção de magoá-lo, but then in the same lesson, “nunca me ouve” “magoaste-o”.

as this is something my 20,000+XP in duo never taught me, I’d really appreciate some help with this aspect of EP grammar and sentence formation, and I’m sure your other readers would too.

Thank you so much for this wonderful blog. You are such a great help to so many.

Yours on the other side of the planet

M. João Tavares.

Kia ora, Michael!

Thank you so much for your continued readership! It’s great to have a lusodescendente (the noun we use for the descendants of Portuguese people all over the world) who’s so engaged with learning more about the country and the language; it’s also amazing that you had a change to visit Portugal for so long – June really is one of the best months to visit!

Regarding your question, clitics truly are a beast in and of themselves, but there are a few rules about their placement. Unlike BP, regular affirmative sentences will have the clitic after the verb with an hyphen joining the two; to quote your examples:

  • Não tinha a intenção de magoá-lo. I didn’t intend to hurt him/it [masc.].
  • Magoaste-o. You hurt him/it [masc.].

Here the object pronoun changes (from -o to -lo) because there’s another rule that says that infinitives lose their -r after clitics (you can read about it in the article I wrote about object pronouns, especially under “Lo/La | Los/Las“).

The example you give of proclisis (when the clitic comes before the verb) is an exception, triggered by amongst other things:

  • After negative particles:
    • Ela nunca me ouve. She never hears me.
    • Eu não lhe disse que o amava. I didn’t tell him I loved him.
    • Nada me diz que isso seja verdade. Nothing tells me that’s true.
  • A subordinate clause:
    • A Maria disse que o Miguel a tinha convidado para sair. Maria said [that] Miguel had asked her out.
    • Ele avisou-me que lhe tinham roubado a carteira. He warned me that his wallet had been stolen.
  • After most adverbs:
    • Ele  me ligou depois das sete. He only called me after seven.
    • Nós  te comprámos a tua prenda de Natal. We have already bought your Christmas present.
    • Sempre me disseram que é bom ser bem educado. People have always told me it’s good to be polite.
    • Quando me dizem que estou gordo, finjo que não ouço. Whenever people tell me I’m fat, I pretend I’m not listening.
  • Optionally, with some prepositions like para (meaning to, in order to) or de followed by a second verb:
    • Fiz um bolo para lhe agradecer a ajuda. I baked him a cake to thank him/her for his help. (para agradecer-lhe would sound weird to some speakers, but not to all – and in any case, still acceptable)
    • Eu gosto de te ajudar. I like to help you. (same with ajudar-te).

These are probably the most significant cases; your question is obviously very pertinent – the language does seem a bit hectic when you see it without this filter – which I’m sure you’ll get with time and practice!

To clarify a few other things, clitics which would be written with -l[o/a/os/as] and -n[o/a/os/as] return to their base form when forced to go before the noun, and assumed mesoclitics become a normal, basic proclitic pronoun followed by the unbroken form of the verb – here is one example of each:

  1. Eu vou comprar-lhe uma cerveja para o felicitar pelo novo trabalho. I will buy him a beer to congratulate him on his new job. (regular form: felicitá-lo)
  2. Eu não lhe darei esta carta. I won’t give him this letter [in the affirmative, it would be Eu dar-lhe-ei esta carta].

If you have any other questions, please let me know in the comments!

Best from Portugal via Luxembourg all the way to New Zealand :)


6 thoughts on “Ask Luís! (#10): Clitic position in Portuguese

  1. julkastarter December 4, 2016 / 8:36 am

    Hello, Luis! Thank you so much for your blog and explanations like these!
    I have one question: the first Michael’s example is negative sentence, but pronoun is not placed before the verb. Why?


    • luisdomingos December 4, 2016 / 9:04 pm

      Hello, Yuliya! Thank you for your question, your reasoning is perfectly right – I should have been clearer!

      What matters for the purposes of the switch is that the verb which takes a clitic isn’t the one being directly negated upon. In that sentence, “tinha” (ter) is the verb being negated with “não”, not magoar; if ter happened to be verb close to the negative particle and there was a clitic envolved, then it would have moved to the top:

      – Ele não me tinha dito que ia magoá-lo. He didn’t tell me he would hurt him/it.
      – Ele tinha-me dito que não o ia magoar. He had told me he wouldn’t hurt him/it.

      Also, in cases with ir + infinitive, people seem to use it both ways: sometimes they’ll place the clitic before, in others they’ll leave at the end (why? because “ir” can be seen as acting like a buffer between the trigger and the pronoun, therefore not causing any changes). I personally prefer to use the clitics before the verb in these situations (see the second example above), but you will see it both ways quite often.

      I’ve corrected the article to clarify my argument – thank you so much for your input :D

      Liked by 2 people

  2. João Duarte December 5, 2016 / 5:30 pm

    Two things I find funny:
    Firstly, the question was asked from New Zealand and was answered in Luxembourg, which is very near the “Old” Zealand (in the Netherlands).
    Also, New Zealand is geographically the most antipode country to Portugal; what a trip Michael made!!
    Luís, once again, you’re doing public service here! :)

    Liked by 2 people

    • luisdomingos December 5, 2016 / 7:06 pm

      Thanks :) I was thinking the same thing regarding NZ, but the connection between New Zealand and the Dutch Zeeland makes it even better :D

      Thank you for your continued readership and support!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Argovela November 23, 2018 / 7:33 pm

    Luís, in this sentence of your blog:

    «Unlike BP, regular affirmative sentences will have the clitic after the noun with an hyphen joining the two; to quote your examples:»

    it should read «… after the verb …», shouldn’t it?

    Just checking to make sure I understand. 🙂

    No need to publish this comment.

    Liked by 1 person

    • luisdomingos November 23, 2018 / 6:39 pm

      Yup, sorry about the mistake. I’ll correct it right away ;) Thanks for letting me know!


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