This, That, These and Those
Demonstrative pronouns and adjectives: the words for this, that, these and those in Portuguese
In the time since I wrote this piece a comprehensive guide has been written by native speaker Danmoller: http://www.duolingo.com/comment/745813.
The difference between this and that is determined by the distance between the speaker and the thing the speaker demonstrates. Unlike English which only distinguishes two possibilities, near (this) and far (that), Portuguese recognizes three. For a thing near the speaker, use este (this), near the person being spoken to (the listener), use esse (that), and far away from both speaker and listener, use aquele (that). Adding a final s for plural agreement gives three words for these and those: things near the speaker, estes (these), near the listener, esses (those) and far away from both, aqueles (those). Related to these words there are a number of abbreviated or contracted forms which replace certain preposition-demonstrative pronoun pairs: replace de este with deste, replace em este with neste and replace a aquele with àquele (and by analogy there are also abbreviations for pairs involving esse/estes/esses/aqueles).
That's not quite the whole story, the este/esse/aquele words only apply to masculine things. You also have the feminine forms esta/essa/aquela together with their plurals and abbreviations. Furthermore, as if that wasn't enough, there are the words isto/isso/aquilo (the neuter or "it" forms of this and that) and their contractions, although (thankfully) they don't have plural forms. These words are true pronouns and never act as adjectives - you can say both esse livro (that book) and simply esse (that [one]) but you can't say isso livro only isso (it/that thing/those things).
In total, I make that 50 Portuguese words related to this, that, these and those:
este, esse, aquele, esta, essa, aquela, estes, esses, aqueles, estas, essas, aquelas, deste, desse, daquele, desta, dessa, daquela, destes, desses, daqueles, destas, dessas, daquelas, neste, nesse, naquele, nesta, nessa, naquela, nestes, nesses, naqueles, nestas, nessas, naquelas, isto, isso, aquilo, disto, disso, daquilo, nisto, nisso, naquilo, àquele, àquela, àqueles, àquelas, àquilo
The way I try to handle this complexity in translation is to just think about the masculine singular forms, ignoring the rest for the moment. There are only three: este = "this", esse = "close-to-listener that" and aquele = "far-from-both that". All the other entries in that frightening list of 50 words are directly related to these three basic words and they are easy to spot: those containing st are related to este, those containing ss are related to esse and the rest containing qu are related to aquele.
Translating from Portuguese to English is the easier direction. Detach and write in full (I mean in your head) any contracted prepositions and then translate este (or its related st word from the list) to an "it/this/these" word. Translate both esse and aquele (or their ss and qu relatives from the list) to an "it/that/those" word.
Translating from English to Portuguese requires more thought because sometimes you will need to choose between one of the two types of Portuguese "it/that/those" words. Basically you construct the translation assuming a masculine singular thing (a choice of only three words) and then refine the translation for the type of thing/s you actually have and finally attach any prepositions that can be attached. Ideally you do all this in your head automatically :-)
Now, the bad news or the good news depending on how you think about it. In the spoken language not everyone plays by the rules. In everyday speech most Brazilians don't differentiate between the st words and ss words any more, they just use one or the other based on their personal preference. I think that means, in speech at least, Brazilian usage is closer to English usage (again, only think about the masculine singular words for now and generalise later): there is one word for this (the usual choice is esse but este is possible), one word for these (usually esses but it could be estes), one word for that (aquele) and one word for those (aqueles).
This rule-bending means that many of the words in the list above lose their strict meanings in everyday speech. Usually Duolingo is not so sloppy, although that is changing as more people suggest sentences and those sentences are added to the accepted pool. While the system is in this state of flux there are bound to be times when you'll be caught out. In my experience it is best to stick to the rules: for example, equating esse/essa/isso with "this" and esses/essas with "these" in any translation exercise is a good way to lose a heart. Another issue is that Duolingo is not consistent with is its treatment of the "it" words. Duolingo sometimes requires them to be translated as "it", at other times wants "this/that" and when it is feeling generous it accepts both styles. Good luck.
Update (Jan 2016): According to one of the course contributors, the current translation mapping is intended to follow the pattern set out below :
this --> isto/isso, este/esse etc
that --> isso/aquilo, esse/aquele etc
isto, este etc --> this
isso, esse etc --> this/that
aquilo, aquele etc --> that
And I presume a similar mapping for these/those.
Thanks for the explanation! I grew up learning Spanish in my home and that is what's also helping me to understand this. I never took formal Spanish lessons and studying Portuguese here on duolingo is such a wonderful way to learn. Reading the discussions especially like this one is very helpful.
Great explanation, Davu, but Duo shouldn't be so strict in relationt to "esse/essa/isso" meaning only "that". That are a lot of situations that "this" would be more appropriate, and Duo condicionates the learner in this.
One example: There are two people, each one with a phone. One could say to the other: This phone is better than that. We would translate as "Este telefone é melhor que aquele".
But, if only the listenter has a phone in hand, and the other one is elsewhere, say, in a counter, we would use the very same sentence "This phone is better than that" and translate as "Esse telefone é melhor que aquele".
I suggest that Duo begins to accept both this and that to esse/essa/isso, when no spatial clue is given.
The problem is not that. Your summary is outstading. The point is that it's really hard to anyone. Natives speak that normally, without thinking about a rule. But when we face we have 50 words for demonstrative in Portuguese vs 4 in English we get in trouble o.O we learn that by the usage... your summary is a good reference. It's up to us to remember the matter of 'location' and 'prepositions'. Then, things become much easier.. ;) thx again
I know the feeling... I've also been struggling mightily with these prepositions as well...
I don't know how you found this discussion because I thought it had disappeared without trace. Thank you for taking the time to let me know it was useful. If I ever try to learn Japanese I'm sure I'll find your comment useful too. Just one small point where you have written "aquile" it should be "aquele". Good luck!
Someone linked it to me because I had made a post about being confused on this topic. And no problem! I'm hoping that Duolingo will add a Japanese option soon so that I can brush up on my reading. And thank you for the correction! I seem to be struggling with spelling in these lessons... haha
This is an absolute terrific explanation and summary of this/that/these/those demonstrative prepositions in Brazilian Portuguese! Although its been a little tough learning the prepositions in Portuguese, I'm starting to get it through repeated trial and error. However, your summary is the first thing I've found that really ties it together. Thanks so much for sharing this!!
Thanks Drew. The things you struggle to learn probably stick with you longest. Despite what you say I'm sure I've still left some room for struggling. There is so much excellent information on this site, most of it hidden away in discussions involving obscure sentences, I just felt a bit frustrated that I couldn't access it easily and I don't think I'm the only one. However, maybe in the long run it really is best to struggle first, so I don't think your trial and error time has been wasted.
Yes, it really is confusing. I am brazilian myself and I keep failing on the shortcuts because I get the demonstrative pronouns wrong. hehe.
Thank you for your kind remark. That aspect of Finnish - multiple endings for a single word - is illustrated in this very cheeky cartoon (you are probably tired of seeing it, sorry):