A YouTube subscriber emailed me the question:
“Can you talk about the difference between este(a), esse(a) and isso? Is there even a difference or is it just a different way of saying the same thing??”
This is a great question. In fact, many Brazilians don’t remember what the difference between ESTE and ESSE is. In everyday spoken Portuguese, the difference is almost completely ignored.
The Demonstrative Pronouns
In English you have the demonstrative pronouns THIS, THAT, THESE, THOSE. In Portuguese you have:
| Este (singular)
| Esta (singular)
Used to refer to nouns (people, animals, objects) that are close in space or time to the speaker
| Esse (singular)
| Essa (singular)
|Isso|| This/these, That/those
Used to refer to nouns (people, animals, objects) that are close in space or time to the person you are speaking with
| Aquele (singular)
| Aquela (singular)
Used to refer to nouns (people, animals, objects) that are distant from the people in the dialogue
As you can see, ESTE, ESSE, and AQUELE agree in gender (masculine/feminine) and number (singular/plura) with the noun that they refer to. ISTO, ISSO, and AQUILO only have one form.
A Few Examples to Put the Grammar into Practice
Sara is holding her phone and telling her friend:
- Este telefone é ótimo. = This phone is great.
Telefone is a masculine, singular noun. The phone is in Sara’s hands. That is why she says ESTE. If Sara was holding two phones, she would say: “Estes telefones.”
João is holding the pen and thinking:
- Esta caneta é enorme. = This pen is huge.
Caneta is a feminine, singular noun. He has the pen with him. Therefore he uses ESTA.
Paulo is with his girlfriend Clarissa. He asks her:
- Essa blusa é nova? = Is this blouse new?
Blusa is a feminine, singular noun. He is talking about Clarissa’s blouse, so he says ESSA.
Bianca is having tea with her friend Melissa, who is reading a book. Bianca asks:
- Esse livro é bom? = Is this book good?
Livro is a masculine, singular noun. The book is closer to her friend than to herself. Therefore Bianca says ESSE.
Here is one more example to illustrate that the difference between ESTE/ESTA and ESSE/ESSA is just a question of distance/perspective, and not a matter of meaning:
- Esta flor é pra você. = This flower is for you.
- Essa flor é pra mim? = Is this flower for me?
The person holding the flower uses ESTA. The other person uses ESSA.
Aqueles restaurantes, Aquelas casas
Antônio points to a couple of restaurants at the other side of the street and says:
- Aqueles restaurantes são novos. = Those restaurants are new.
- Aquelas casas também. = Those houses as well.
Restaurantes is a masculine, plural noun. The restaurants are not by Antônio or his friends. Therefore he says AQUELES.
Casas is a feminine, plural noun. That is why he says AQUELAS.
How About ISTO, ISSO, and AQUILO?
As you could see in the examples above, ESTE(S), ESTA(S), ESSE(S), ESSA(S), AQUELE(S) and AQUELA(S) agree in gender and number with the noun (object, person, animal) that they refer to.
ISTO, ISSO and AQUILO do not vary. They do not have feminine and plural forms.
In addition – this is very important – ISTO, ISSO and AQUILO are never followed by a noun (person, animal, object).
Isto é açaí
Vicente is holding a handful of acaí. He tells his friends:
- Isto é acai. = This is açaí.
It doesn’t matter whether the object is masculine or feminine. It also doesn’t matter if we have one object or many. What matters is that Vicente is holding the fruits, so he chooses to say ISTO.
O que é isso?
Ronaldo opens the box and feels puzzled. He thinks to himself:
- O que é isso? = What is this?
Again, it doesn’t matter whether the object is masculine or feminine. It also doesn’t matter if we have one object or many. What matters is that the object is not in Ronaldo’s hand, so he chooses to say ISSO.
O que é aquilo?
André sees something strange in the sky and asks:
- O que é aquilo no céu? = What is that in the sky?
The object is not close to him or to his friends, so he uses AQUILO.
Does It Really Matter?
The difference between ESTE/ESSE, ESTA/ESSA and ISTO/ISSO is frequently ignored in spoken Portuguese in Brazil. However, if you are going to write documents for business or school, you should study the differences in more detail, as there will be differences in meaning.
I hope this helped solve the mystery of the demonstrative pronouns in Portuguese.
Street Smart Brazil offers one-on-one online Portuguese lessons. We have a fantastic team of tutors, exclusive class materials, and complete programs from absolute beginner to fluent. See what our customers are saying and book a Trial Lesson today.