The reason I am asking this question is because there seems to be two ways of expressing someone's property. There is there are the following forms:

Determiner + Noun, for example:

A sua camisa - His (or her) shirt.

Noun + Preposition-Pronoun:

A camisa dele - His shirt

It seems that both of these forms are equally legal. Therefore, I am just wondering; which form do I use and when? Is one more formal than the other?

Thanks much in advance.

  • Mr Chasi: please note that I rewrote my answer. – Artefacto Oct 17 '15 at 16:48
  • "(A) sua camisa" translates to "Your shirt" and is common to ommit the article – jean Oct 30 '15 at 12:47

First, note that the possessive pronouns don't necessarily mean "possession of property", but I'll use terms such as "posessor" henceforth.

If you're referring to an interlocutor that you're addressing in the third person, then there's no choice: you have to use seu, not dele. You could also use do senhor, da professora, etc. (but not de você!, at least in Portugal). The chosen form depends on the emphasis, as explained below for seu/dele, though in this case the difference is even more marked.

Otherwise, the rule of thumb is that if the property belongs to the subject, you use seu, otherwise you use dele.

Not referring to the grammatical subject

Take this example:

(1) Hoje pus a lavar a camisa dele.

If we reformulate it with sua:

(2) Hoje pus a lavar a sua camisa.

we would still have a valid sentence, but it sounds affected, and hardly anyone would say it (though they could write it). In this sense, it is more formal, but you could (and some people do, as Jacinto mentions in his answer) just write it off as bad style. Sentence (2) has also has the problem that, at least in theory, it could be referring to an interlocutor addressed in the 3rd person.

Note that this contrasts with the use of si and consigo, which can only refer 1) either to the subject or 2) in Portugal, to an interlocutor addressed in the 3rd person.

Referring to the grammatical subject

The case where the possessor is the grammatical subject is not as clear-cut. In general, you should use seu, except that:

  1. Perhaps because dele is positioned in a more prominent position in the sentence, it can mark the possession more strongly (e.g. to introduce a contrast), rather than merely identifying the object through his possessor. The same effect can be had by stressing seu and an even bigger one by adding mesmo/próprio. Nevertheless, if the owner of the object can be inferred, then the pronoun can be omitted altogether:

    (3) Hoje o João trouxe o carro. [he didn't take the bus, without more, the car is presumably his]
    (4) Hoje o João trouxe o seu carro. [he didn't take the bus and we know for sure the car is his]
    (5) Hoje o João trouxe o seu próprio carro. [constrast with else's]
    (6) Hoje o João trouxe o carro dele. [both are possible, (5) is favored]

  2. If there is an ambiguity and seu can refer to an interlocutor addressed in the 3rd person, use dele. This avoids these exchanges:

    (7) A: - O João levou o seu carro de serviço.
    B: - O meu?!
    A: - Não, o dele.

  3. Because seu agrees only with the noun, and not the owner, there can sometimes be ambiguities that wouldn't exist with dele, especially in writing, where seu is common to refer to persons other than the speaker:

    (8) O João sentou-se com a Joana e discutiu os seus planos.

    If (8) was a written sentence, I would question whether seus refers to João's plan, Joana's or both. A better sentence would therefore be:

    (9) O João sentou-se com a Joana e discutiu os planos dele/dela/deles.

    This ambiguity applies more to written speech though. If these utterances were spoken:

    (10) O João senta-se ao lado do Carlos. Está agora a ler os seus [do João] apontamentos.
    (11) O João senta-se ao lado do Carlos. Está agora a ler os apontamentos dele [ambiguous, but most likely Carlos'].

    It would be difficult to interpret (10) as referring to Carlos' notes.

There are also reasons not to use dele:

  1. It cannot be used at all if it refers to an indefinite pronoun and using dele would force you to choose a sex for the possessor*:

    (12) Há cem anos atrás, a maior parte das pessoas teria negado, com violência e indignação, que sentisse sequer o desejo de fazer amor com alguém que não fosse o seu cônjuge.

    If you used dele or dela, you would be changing the meaning of the sentence by restricting it to one sex.

    However, in (13) seu trabalho can be replaced with trabalho dele because we know that Bill Watterson is a man:

    (13) Watterson era, apenas, alguém que prezava muito o seu trabalho e que não olhava a banda desenhada como um mero entretenimento.

    But it would arguably be stylistically inferior, especially in writing.

  2. If dele is ambiguous because there's a third person it could refer to, you should avoid it and use seu. For instance, don't use (11) to convey the meaning of (10).

  3. Because of its different position in the sentence, dele can also get quite far from the noun it's qualifying and therefore make the sentence awkward. In those cases, if dele refers to the subject, you should definitely take the option of replacing it with seu. Taking Jacinto's example: you should replace (14) with (15):

    (14) O João trouxe a camisa às riscas azuis e brancas dele!
    (15) O João trouxe a sua camisa às riscas azuis e brancas!

Outside of these cases, the choice between the two to refer to the subject is up to the speaker. Generally (an there will be exceptions!), using seu sounds more polished and natural, so I would go with that, especially in writing.

Using both

As more of a curiosity, you can also use both seu and dele for emphasis, though this is very rare, at least in Portugal. Cunha & Cintra's grammar gives this example:

(16) Montaigne explica pelo seu modo dele a variedade deste livro. (Machado de Assis, OC, II, 556)

* Examples from CETEMPúblico.

  • Your rule of thumb does not convince me. "Hoje ele trouxe a camisa dele," meaning his own shirt, is fine. And "ele trouxe a camisa dela com flores" sounds as bad as your own example, even though the shirt does not belongs to the subject. – Jacinto Oct 16 '15 at 14:06
  • @Jacinto Your second example doesn't sound good because of the order: "Hoje ele trouxe a camisa com flores dela" is how I would say it. As to the other point, I never said that "Hoje ele trouxe a camisa dele" is wrong, just that it's stylistically inferior and much worse if there is more than one possible referent. – Artefacto Oct 16 '15 at 14:15
  • Same with your example: "ele trouxe a camisa com flores dele" sounds just as good as "ele trouxe a camisa com flores dela". I guess we don't have the same notions of style. – Jacinto Oct 16 '15 at 14:22
  • @Jacinto You're right, I fixed the example. I don't think it changes anything though, "hoje ele trouxe a sua camisa com flores" still sounds better than "hoje ele trouxe a camisa com flores dele" or "hoje trouxe a camisa com flores dele" (just to rule out the possibility that what makes it sound bad is the repeated "ele"). – Artefacto Oct 16 '15 at 14:25
  • To me what makes it sound worse, but this applies to own object as to someone else's, is the length of the thing: "Ele trouxe a camisa às riscas azuis e brancas dela!" – Jacinto Oct 16 '15 at 14:33

Seu, sua, seus, suas, agree in gender and number with the thing possessed, but the possessor could be ele, ela, eles, elas, or the person you talking to if you’re addressing them by você, o senhor, or other pronome de tratamento. Dele, dela, deles, delas, agree only with the possessor (ele, etc., but not você, etc.), so it is often unambiguous where seu, etc. would be ambiguous.

If you’re addressing, say Sr. Silva, by você or other pronome de tratamento, one would interpret seu as Sr. Silva’s, unless context makes it clear it is otherwise. Take the examples:

(a) Bom dia Sr. Silva, estive a falar com o João acerca do seu problema.
(b) Bom dia Sr. Silva, estive a falar com o João acerca do problema dele.

In (a) we mean Sr. Silva’s problem; in (b) João’s problem.

From now on assume you’re addressing the person you’re talking to by tu, so we can more easily discuss other uses of seu. When I imagine myself talking to a friend, I’ll use dele rather than seu in most contexts. So, yes, in many contexts seu will sound somewhat formal, whereas dele never does:

(c) A Maria levou-me ontem à terra dela.
(d) O João esteve a contar-me os problemas dele.
(e) Não precisas de ir buscar a Ana. Ela vem no carro dela.

When the context makes it clear whom the thing we’re talking about belongs to, we typically use neither seu nor dele:

(f) A Ana foi jantar fora com a irmã. A irmã sujou a camisa com vinho.
(g) O Pedro perdeu as chaves do carro. Teve que pedir boleia à namorada.

It is clear we’re talking of Ana’s sister, her sister’s shirt, Pedro’s car, and his girlfriend. These also sound more natural than the alternatives with seu or dele. And in (f) I would think camisa dela would be the sister’s shirt, but wouldn’t be completely sure.

Seu is the only option with indefinite pronouns:

(h) Cada um vem no seu carro.
(i) Ninguém revelou a sua intenção.
(j) Toda a gente quer o melhor para os seus filhos.
(k) Todos têm que cumprir as suas obrigações.
(l) Todo o ofício tem o seu saber. (Every trade/craft has its own know-how.)

You could drop seus in (j) though. If we use a pronome de tratamento, as with Sr. Silva, (i) and (j) would be ambiguous: we could be talking of Sr. Silva’s intention and children. To make clear that is not the case, we could say:

(i1) Falei com o pessoal, Sr. Silva, mas ninguém revelou a respetiva intenção.
(j1) Claro, Sr. Silva, toda a gente quer o melhor para os seus próprios filhos.
(j2) Claro, Sr. Silva, toda a gente quer o melhor para os filhos.

In writing and formal speech seu is used more extensively than in informal spoken language. Some writers though hate the use of seu when dele would do.

  • Se bem percebo, o argumento é que "seu" é preterido em favor de "dele" e que a única diferença é de registo. Não fazes qualquer menção a "seu" se referir ao sujeito exceto implicitamente no contexto das frases h)-k). Inclusive, nos exemplos c)-e), "dele" refere-se sempre ao sujeito. Mas o argumento de que "seu" se refere preferencialmente ao sujeito é distinto do argumento que "dele" tende a não ser usado quando se refere ao sujeito. – Artefacto Oct 17 '15 at 12:00
  • De qualquer forma, eu acho que, não obstante as tuas frases, o 2o argumento é ainda válido. Em 1o lugar, d) soa melhor com "seu", a não que ser que estivesses a contrastar com os problemas doutra pessoa (vê a minha resposta editada). c) fica melhor com "dela", mas isso é explicado por "terra dele/dela" ser um grupo coeso. e) tem uma explicação semelhante a d). Estás a contrastar o carro dela com o carro do interlocutor e por isso "dela" soa melhor que "seu". – Artefacto Oct 17 '15 at 12:06

There is a difference (perverse) between ptPT and ptBR concerning the use of "seu/sua" and "dele/dela". In Brazil we hardly ever use "seu/sua" for the third person singular. Instead, we use "dele/dela". We use "seu/sua" for the Brazilian second person singular "você", which requires verbal agreement in the third person singular. This can create confusion if you are not aware of this difference in usage. When I took my eldest daughter to Portugal a few years ago, a Portuguese relative of mine turned to her and said: - "Veja este vestido. A Maria comprou um igual para a sua irmã". My daughter immediately displayed a question mark on her face and asked: "pra quem???", and I had to explain: "para a irmã dela".
In Brazil, if you say "Alvaro foi com o seu carro", the listener will assume Alvaro went for a drive in the listener's car. To avoid a misunderstanding you would have to say "Alvaro foi com o carro dele".

  • In ptPT - "Ela estava abraçando o seu marido"
  • In ptBR - "Ela estava abraçando o marido dela."
  • In ptBR - "Ela estava abraçando o seu marido", is likely to raise Cain.

To answer your question, in order to avoid confusion, use "dele/dela" in Brazil. In Portugal, our friends here can tell you when to use which.

Addendum - I don't mean to say that "seu/sua" is never used in Brazil. You will certainly hear it in some literate circles, but that's unusual. In the written language you will find it more often but still "dele/dela" prevails.

  • 1
    Centauros "Ela estava abraçando o seu marido" não se usa em pt_PT no máximo "Ela abraçou o seu marido." e mesmo assim prefiro "Ela abraçou o marido." ou "Ela abraçou o marido dela." – Jorge B. Oct 16 '15 at 8:40
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    "Ela abraçou o seu marido." pode dar ideia que foi o marido da ouvinte. – Jorge B. Oct 16 '15 at 8:42
  • @centaurus The issue you raise is equally valid in Portugal when você or other pronome de tratamento is used. – Jacinto Oct 16 '15 at 11:29
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    Bom saber. O teu exemplo é que não é facto muito bom porque aí o mais comum é omitir o pronome. Nem "seu" nem "dela" me soam bem. – Artefacto Oct 16 '15 at 11:37
  • @Artefacto Concordo, o mais comum nos dois exemplos que dei é omitir o pronome. Mas eu precisava de exemplos e foi o que me ocorreu. – Centaurus Oct 16 '15 at 16:09

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