It - What is "it" in Portuguese after all?

There is a tendency of many people thinking that "it" translates as "isto" in Portuguese, but in fact, it doesn't (or at least it's not the standard meaning).

There are cases where this is true, but mostly, "it" should be seen differently.

What we usually teach in the English for Portuguese speakers course is:

"It" não é "isto" = "It" is not "isto"

"It" in English may have different functions that are distinct in Portuguese. Dummy "it"s and concrete "it"s are treated differently, for instance.

All sentences like "It is something" should not be translated with "isso/isto". They should simply use nothing. These are "hidden subjects" in Portuguese:

  • It is a man = __ É um homem
  • It is my car = __ É o meu carro
  • It is very interesting = __ É muito interessante

As you can tell, the difference between "It's a man" and "this is a man" is enough to make them not be used interchangeably, unless when someone asks you "what is this?". The same distinction exists in Portuguese between "É um homem" and "Isto é um homem".

Also, there are subjects that don't even exist, such as with nature events:

  • It is raining = __ Está chovendo (there is nothing at all that "does" rain)

"It" is a personal pronoun, therefore in cases where it's an actual concrete subject or object, it should be translated with a personal pronoun as well: ele/ela (subject) and o/a/-lo/-la/-no/-na (object), or even be omitted if the sentence doesn't get unnatural by that omission:

  • I like my car, it's so comfortable = Eu gosto do meu carro, ele é tão confortável!!
  • Your house is great, I like it! = Tua casa é ótima, eu gosto dela
  • I love that play, I want to watch it again = Eu amo essa peça, quero vê-la de novo
  • Here is your money, take it an leave = Aqui está o seu dinheiro, pegue-o e saia.
  • It's an interesting opportunity, they are chasing it = __ É uma oportunidade interessante, eles estão correndo atrás dela
  • It bit me! = Ele/Ela me mordeu! (something that "bites" is certainly a concrete thing)

Using "isto/isso" in any of these cases would be very weird if you are talking about those mentioned subjects/objects, just like it would happen in English with "this". Using "isto/isso" would evoke a "situation" as subject/object to replace those.

  • I like my car, this is so comfortable - Wait, what is comfortable? You liking your car? Perhaps you demonstrating how the seats lean back? Not your car, you would have used "it/ele" if it were your car.

Then why everyone keeps saying that "it = isto"?

Well, first, beginners are not used to the idea of "not translating a word" (such as in the "it's something" sentences). Many feel the need to translate "it" and the nearest one can think for those indefinite cases is "isto". Also, Duolingo's hint system doesn't really fit the possibility of an empty hint.

And second, there are cases indeed when they can!

These are cases that simply get "idiomatic" in Portuguese with "isto/isso", and they seem to happen mostly when there is a "situation" or something that is not concrete enough or not specific/identified enough to be referred to as "ele". Then, "Isto = this vague thing". And there is also a "preposition", which forces you to add a complement. Prepositions cannot stand loose in Portuguese, they need the complement after them. Otherwise, it would be probably better to omit the translation.

One case without preposition for comparison. Here "it" is not translated:

  • — I have a surprise for you = Eu tenho uma surpresa para você
  • — What is it? = O que é __? (Not concrete enough to use "ela", not present enough to use "isto". Still working the same as English)

Classic cases are:

  • Think about it = Pense nisso (The situation is too vague for one to use "ele", even though, you can when you define it properly: "É um caso interessante, vou pensar nele com carinho = It's an interesting case, I'll think about it with care")

  • We will talk about it later = Falaremos disso depois (The concrete thing and the situation meanings may mix up here, lacking "concreteness". It's an idiomatic usage. Again, defining it properly would allow "ele" usage: Este assunto não é tão importante, falaremos dele depois = This subject is not that important, we'll talk about it later)

  • Because of it = Por causa disso / Por isso (Once more, the situation and the concrete thing may mix up, another idiomatic usage. Again, the "ele" case applies: "Toda essa mudança me deixa maluco, por causa dela não consigo me orientar = All this change drives me crazy, because of it I can't orient myself)

In these cases, the prepositions are "em" (making "nisso") and "de" (making "disso").
Notice that in a case where the object is naturally implied, it would be a good idea to omit it too:

  • I will think about it carefully = Eu vou pensar __ com cuidado (no object, no preposition)

Back to the Portuguese Help Index:

February 11, 2016


I think that a better approach on that subject would be to say that 'isto/isso' indeed means 'it' in portuguese, but to keep in mind that its usage is not always the same as in english. Its like what happens with german, which has equivalents for all the english prepositions, but which the usage greatly differs from english. As an example, the preposition 'bei' ('by' in english), which is used in situations that in english one would say 'at', 'to', 'with' etc. But that does no good to someone who just started learning. Its much better to just learn it as 'by' and accept that it is not used the same way it is in english.

February 11, 2016

No, it doesn't mean "it". In "exceptional/idiomatic cases" it can be.

"Isto" means "this" and the equivalency between these is hardly broken. It's different from prepositions that certainly can't be translated that simply.

February 11, 2016

I have seen here in the foruns the correlation between "it" (English) and "es" (German). This can be a valid correlation ?

February 24, 2016

I'm not sure exactly what you're asking, but I think yes, it (English) and es (German) are closely correlated.

I know German pretty well...I think German is really different from Portuguese (and Spanish) in this regard. In German, people explicitly use the word "es" very frequently in speech and writing. "Es" also appears very frequently in idiomatic constructions, like "Es gibt..." = "There are..." and it behaves strangely relative to grammar, at least by English and romance language intuitions, i.e. you can say "Es sind..."

But in spite of the strangeness I think "Es" and "It" are very similar words, with only a few quirky exceptions of how they're different. Like in probably a majority of cases, "es" translates literally to "it". Like "Es ist kalt." = "It is cold." or "Ich sehe es." = "I see it."

February 29, 2016

Dank für ihre antwort cazort. Get a lingot.

February 29, 2016

Exactly. Translations are approximation. Given context, very often there are often different words or even phrases that communicate the idea from one language into another. However, German and English are very much the same when it comes to the syntactic requirement of having "something" hold the subject spot.

Mark jogs. So do I.

Es sind drei Tacos auf dem Tisch

September 28, 2016

Thanks so much for the post! It's very helpful!!

I'm an intl student in Japan, and I decided to learn Portuguese last year because it's such a beautiful language, and has surprisingly a lot of influence on Japanese (and even Chinese, my native language!). In Japanese, it's also very often that people just omit 'it' and the pronoun 'I'.

It's so interesting to see distant languages share similarities like this, may it be coincidence or not :D


February 11, 2016

I'm just getting a very superficial idea of japanese. There are so many things we don't translate from your language :)

February 11, 2016

Japanese uses particles that communicate function for which there is no real translation. For Japanese, a noun followed by the sound "o," and then (a number) + Kudasai (please) is a request. The sound and symbol is translated by position in English (the direct object noun), accusative case in German (Der becomes den) and Russian (a becomes u for fem. nouns) and position in Italian.

September 28, 2016

In fact, almost all languages omit the "it" and some other pronouns because the verbs are conjugated and it is implied the presence of such pronouns. English is one of those in which the pronoun is necessary to fully understand the idea. In Spanish you will omit pronouns unless the sentence isn't clear enough.

May 6, 2016

Almost all? Name one other than a Romance language? Russian requires a subject. So does German. Of course, we know English too must have a subject. As a linguist, I believe there are divided fairly equal.

September 28, 2016

Dan, your posts have always been very comprehensive and thorough, thanks for the time you spend. I have not been able to use duo much these last several months due to comp issues, but I'm now able to continue thankfully. Anyway, you and many others are so very appreciated - thank you.

February 13, 2016

Very informative. Linguists agree that it is a pronoun and replaces a concrete inanimate noun without a concern for gender as in other languages. That is already a challenge for English speakers since the simple word table is ela (she) in Portuguese, masculine in German and Russian, and famine in Italian, just to mention a few. Then linguists categorize English as a non-prodrop language. That means we must have something before our verb or it is well not English. So "it" and others words can fulfill the syntactic requirement.

It rains. Many native language English teachers will argue that "it" replaces "the weather." The weather is raining...sounds funny and indeed is unacceptable to native speakers.

There are six students in the room. Clearly, there does not mean in the room.

So, how do you translate this it? In pro-drop languages, any attempt often produces an unacceptable or at least awkward sounding sentence.

So, a better understanding of English may help to learn the lack of "it" in other languages.

Hang on, someone is knocking at the door. "Who is it." "It's John."

Even when we know it is a person knocking, it still serves as a required subject holder to meet the rule English must have a subject.

September 28, 2016

For those wondering about the "there is/are" translations:

  • Há seis estudantes na sala (de aula)
July 2, 2018

"It" has many translations, and "Isto/isso" is also acceptable. It/this is a man = Isso é um homem It/this is my car = Isso é o meu carro It/this is very interesting = __ Isso é muito interesante It's not always that we omit "It" in a sentence. You're right, however add "Isto/Isso" as a possibility, it depends on the context. "It" could be translated to Isso/Isto, É, and "estar" like.. It's raining (Esta chovendo)

February 23, 2016
Learn Portuguese in just 5 minutes a day. For free.