September 14, 2012 | Portuguese

Personal Infinitives!

An unusual feature of Portuguese grammar.

Yesterday I decided I would visit a few consulates of different Portuguese-speaking countries and see what I could learn. The problem is, now that I no longer drink coffee, I tend to go to sleep and wake up earlier.

Where It Was Too Early to Go

Where It Was Too Early to Go

So instead of arriving at the Brazilian consulate in the early afternoon, which is what I would have done in the past, I showed up at 9-something. The problem: they open at 10:00.

So I went to the Portuguese consulate instead. Same story. It had not crossed my mind that consulates wouldn’t open by 9:00. Is that normal? 

Being an early(ish) bird is not always as convenient as I thought it would be when I first cut caffeine. I had a lot to do yesterday and didn’t want to loiter. The wind was knocked out of my language-learning sails by this unexpected timing hurdle.

I started to consider the rudeness of showing up at consulates unannounced and expecting someone to talk to me. From an etiquette point of view, it’s true that it’s not a great thing to do. (It’s just that you sometimes get the best conversations when you don’t have appointments for them.)

Deferring my consulate plans for another day, I returned home and studied grammar instead. Portuguese has some odd features. One involves the infinitive.

590 Fifth Avenue, Home to the Portuguese Consulate, Where I Also Couldn't Go

590 Fifth Avenue, Home to the Portuguese Consulate, Where I Also Couldn’t Go

While Portuguese has infinitives like many other languages—falar is “to speak,” comer is “to eat,” ouvir is “to hear”—they have another version of the infinitive that looks and acts different.

You would say Eu vou te ajudar for “I am going to help you.” (Right?) That’s standard stuff, where ajudar is a regular run-of-the-mill infinitive for “to help.” 

However: as John Whitlam notes in Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar, “Unlike many other languages, where the infinitive cannot by definition have a subject of its own that is different from that of the main verb, Portuguese has a so-called ‘personal infinitive,’ which makes the infinitive an extremely versatile and much-used feature of the language.”

If that is enigmatic to you, join the club! I was pretty happy with my existing infinitive situation and did not feel in any way impoverished by its simplicity.

Here’s an example Whitlam offers for the personal infinitive. É perigoso as crianças brincarem nos trilhos. (It’s dangerous for the children to play on the tracks.)

The regular old infinitive of “to play” is actually brincar. But in this construction you stick on the em ending, making brincarem the third-person plural personal infinitive form (say that five times fast) to go with crianças (children). 

When I first started noticing verb forms like brincarem, I thought maybe they were just unusual third-person indicative forms. But the third-person present-tense conjugation would actually be brincam. So no.

I find this personal-infinitive construction rather unintuitive. Things do tend to feel unintuitive when you are not used to doing them.

According to a Wikipedia entry entitled “Infinitive,” the personal infinitive, inflecting for person and number, is also found in Galician and Sardinian, two languages I know nothing about. “These are the only Indo-European languages,” the entry says, “that allow infinitives to take person and number endings.”

I searched online for more information about the personal infinitive and came across the website of someone named Rafa. He appears to be quite fond of the personal infinitive. “It’s so easy to use,” he raves, “and it will make a huge difference in the way you express yourself in Portuguese!”

He also notes, “The Portuguese Personal Infinitive is a form that you can use to avoid the use of the subjunctive in a large number of cases. So how cool is that?” He offers the following example:

É possivel eles irem ao cinema hoje. (It is possible that they will go to the movies today.)

Irem is the personal infinitive there. Rafa points out that if you instead added a que (that) after é possivel—which would be a very natural way to structure such a concept in Western languages I have studied—the verb form for ir (to go) would then need to be changed to subjunctive. 

The thing is, I don’t mind using subjunctive. You still have to learn it anyway! And actually, the Portuguese personal infinitive feels like a whole other additional tense I have to learn. (I know, I know, it’s not a tense.) 

I am pretty sure that this personal infinitive thing is a difficult concept for Portuguese language teachers to convey to their students—unless maybe those students already speak Galician or Sardinian. 

But my Portuguese infinitive encounters have definitely expanded my notion of what an infinitive can be. How parochial my thinking on the subject was until now! 

Comments (14)

Luciana • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 3:23 pm EST

I liked a lot this entry!! From now on, when I talk to my students about this, I will remember this post and be very careful… hehehe. Obrigada!! :)

josé luiz serafini • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 7:07 pm EST

There’s a story they tell about a Brazilian who showed up at the Brazilian embassy in Lisbon at the same early hour you did and with the same result. He asked the janitor, “Don’t they work in the morning?”, and this seasoned, old Portuguese official answered, “Não, de manhã eles não ESTÃO, de tarde é que eles não trabalham…”

As for the personal infinitive, yes, it’s weird, peculiar, strange, oxymoronic and difficult…

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, September 14, 2012 - 7:50 pm EST

That is a very funny story, José (or should I call you José Luiz?).

I just looked up the hours for the French, German, Italian, Greek, Indian, and Spanish consulates here in New York, and all of them open at 9:00 a.m.

And regarding the last sentence, infinitive empathy is welcome.

josé luiz serafini • Posted on Sat, September 15, 2012 - 7:40 am EST

I remember reading somewhere that Spanish too had, at an early stage,its own brand of personal infinitive, but got rid of it sometime in the 14/15th century, especially under the authority and sanction of the Academía Real, which deemed it “a bad habit”...

But consider how subtle, how exquisite these two constructions do sound in Portuguese,

      passei sem me verem = I passed without their seeing me
      o quereres = the fact of thy wishing

josé luiz/ serafini • Posted on Sat, September 15, 2012 - 8:28 am EST

A few points to ponder on the PI, and caveats: (a) usage is somewhat controversial, with grammarians dissenting bitterly over particular cases;  (b)  usage is often idiosyncratic: some writers will use it lavishly, others sparingly;  (c) but too much of it is considered bad taste; (d)  so when in doubt, it’s better to drop it, and that’s something many people do in an unconscious basis; (e) in many cases both forms, personal and impersonal, are possible;  and (f) unfortunately, due to subtlety and difficulty of usage, there is a tendency of its slowly disappearing…

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, September 15, 2012 - 4:21 pm EST

I love grammar controversies. How exciting.

I do find many of the personal-infinitive examples I’ve come across in my grammar books to be esoteric (at least for my English-speaking brain). So far they are things I can maybe grasp as a passive reader in the midst of a chapter that is dedicated to explaining the personal infinitive, but as for replicating them freestyle in writing or speech…well, that moment seems far off.

Here are a couple more infinitive examples from the John Whitlam book on Brazilian Portuguese:

Deixa eu ver (spoken, meaning “Let me see.”)
Deixa-me explicar de outra forma. (written, meaning “Let me explain in another way.”)

“Ver” in the first example is described as a personal infinitive (though to English speakers, this is not at all obvious since the form is in this case the same as the standard infinitive). “Explicar” in the second sentence is explained to be the impersonal—i.e., regular—infinitive. What happens to the pronouns is rather remarkable! I guess in the first one the “eu” is the subject for the personal infinitive, whereas in the second, the objective form “me” is the object for “let”?

One situation that I didn’t mention in this blog entry is the use of personal infinitives after certain prepositions. Here’s a (Portugal-style) sentence from Sue Tyson-Ward’s “Essential Portuguese Grammar”:

Antes de tu viajares, o carro avariou-se. (Before you traveled, the car broke down.)

That construction surprised me. It’ll take some getting used to these and others! In the meantime, I suspect I am going to reroute with subjunctive whenever it is allowed and I am up to the task.

If that won’t make me sound too stodgy, that is.

Jared Romey • Posted on Sun, September 16, 2012 - 9:48 am EST


My portuguese is seriously rusty. Wouldnt brincarem be the subjunctive like Spanish requires here?


PS. Brasilian embassy open in the morning? That’s funny!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, September 16, 2012 - 9:57 am EST

Hi, Jared! I believe present subjunctive would be “brinquem” (from the infinitive “brincar”).

Luciana • Posted on Sun, September 16, 2012 - 10:14 am EST

Hi, Jared
Yes, brincarem would be the personal infinitive and brinquem the present subjunctive.

Jared Romey • Posted on Sun, September 16, 2012 - 11:29 am EST

I remember when I studied Portuguese (1996, holy crap!) there was a verb tense that didn’t exist in Spanish…maybe future subjunctive??

Anyone know when that would be used?


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, September 16, 2012 - 2:13 pm EST

Yes, future subjunctive! That one surprised me, too. I was thinking of writing an entry about it; maybe I will.

Tim • Posted on Sun, December 09, 2012 - 10:17 pm EST

I could be wrong about this, but looking at the verb tables in my Portuguese grammar book, th future subjunctive and the personal infinitive seem to be the same for regular verbs. Could they be the same form deep down?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, December 16, 2012 - 9:50 pm EST

Yes, they are the same, but I didn’t notice that until I was writing my September 16th entry, two days after this one. :)

Rodolfo Piskorski • Posted on Wed, May 16, 2018 - 7:09 pm EST

I think Rafa’s point is that there are no irregular personal infinitives. Absolutely none.
In fact, the only difference between the personal infinitive and the future subjunctive is that the latter is sometimes irregular. Thus:

Elas vão se machucar se elas brincarem (FUT SUBJ)
É importante elas brincarem (PERS INF)

It’s the same. But if we use a verb which is irregular in the FUT SUBJ

Elas vão se machucar se elas forem [ir] (FUT SUBJ)
É importante elas irem (PERS INF)

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