I have been told that after using the conjunction 'se' ('if' in English) it is possible to conjugate the following verb using one of the 3 subjunctives. For example:

Se me ajudares, comprar-te-ei um novo carro.

Se as tivessem comido, tudo teria sido normal

However, my question is; Is 'se' only ever conjugated using the subjunctive? Or is it perfectly legal to use the indicative mood, and say things such as:

Se as tinham comido, tudo teria sido normal

Thanks in advance for your responses.


First, it's not true that se is used with “one of the three subjunctives”; it's not used with the present of the subjunctive (that's a syntactic peculiarity of se more than anything else; if you replace se with the equivalent caso, meaning in case that, then you'd use the present instead of the future; the present and the future of the subjunctive mean essentially the same thing and neither has to refer to the future).

I assume you're only referring to se in conditional sentences (i.e. not an if in the sense of whether). Conditional senses don't necessarily express conditions (i.e., that in se A, então B, A is a sufficient condition for B). Extreme example: se bem me lembro, fui lá ontem.

Generally, three types of conditional phrases are distinguished: factual, hypothetical and counterfactual. The factual ones are used with the indicative. In this, it is assumed that the content of the propositions is true in the real world for the relevant timespan. Examples from Maria Mateus and others' grammar (6th ed., p. 706):

(1) Se está bom tempo, ficamos bem dispostos.
(2) Se a água atinge a temperatura de 100°C, (então) entra/entrará em ebulição.
(3) Se o narciso é uma flor, (então) pertence ao reino vegetal.

In all of these, you could replace the indicative with the future of the subjunctive, for instance:

(4) Se estiver bom tempo, ficamos bem dispostos.

And then we'd have, at least in principle, an hypothetical conditional, where the protasis refers to an hypothetical world, ‘epistemically inaccessible at the time of the utterance’ (ibid., p. 707). In practice, the difference between (1) and (4) is subtle. (1) can only be interpreted as a general rule or describing a habitual situation. (4) can be interpreted with effectively the same meaning, but it's information gathered from seeing this hypothetical world from the outside (if this makes any sense). (4) can also be interpreted as referring to some possible good weather in the future; in that case ficamos refers also to the future and can be replaced with vamos ficar.

It's not just the present that can be used:

(5) Se o Rui estava doente, a mãe telefonava-lhe todos os dias. [describing an habitual situation in the past]
(6) Se o Rui esteve (de facto) doente, fomos muito maus para ele. [assuming that he was in fact sick, we were very mean]

In informal speech, the indicative can be used even in hypothetical and counterfactual situations. This gives them more expressiveness, as you feel the events closer to you, as if they were really happening, rather than happening in an hypothetical world:

(7) Se te apanho [=apanhar], nem sabes o que te vai acontecer!
(8) Se o avançado tem apanhado [=tivesse apanhado] a bola naquela zona, era [=teria sido] uma situação muito complicada para a defesa.

The counterfactual case (where the imperfect is used), is less of a problem because it's easier to distinguish. Looking at your sentence, it seems to me that you want to express a counterfactual situation. Here you have to use the pluperfect:

(9) Se as tivessem comido, tudo teria sido normal.

The one you gave (with tinham comido) is only acceptable in some registers. To me it sounds provincial, and so does (8). (7) is idiomatic.

  • Muito boa resposta. Mas até eu estou com alguma dificuldade em seguir a explicação da diferença entre (1) e (4).
    – Jacinto
    Jan 13 '16 at 20:13
  • @Jacinto Hmm quero dizer que (4) pode ou significar mais ou menos o mesmo que (1) "se estiver bom tempo, ficamos sempre bem dispostos" ou se referir ao futuro "se estiver bom tempo amanhã, ficaremos bem dispostos". Para (1) ser interpretado como futuro precisaria lá de um advérbio como "amanhã", se não a leitura é a habitual.
    – Artefacto
    Jan 13 '16 at 20:16

Se can have several shades of meaning. When it means whether, whenever, or if it is true that (it can have these meanings in English too), it is usually followed by the indicativo; when it is a ‘straigt’ if introducing some condition that may or may not be or come true, it is followed by the futuro do conjuntivo or the indicativo, depending on what you mean; when it introduces a counterfactual it is followed by the pretérito do conjuntivo or mais-que-perfeito do conjuntivo. This is the case of your last example, where the indicative is not allowed. You can say:

Se as tivessem comido [but you didn't], tudo teria sido normal.

Se as comesses [but you are not eating them], tudo seria normal.

In the following examples, se introduces a condition that may or may not become true in the future. Usually one would use the futuro do conjuntivo for that (se ela chegar, se me chegar), but the authors use the presente do indicativo instead. It sort of intensifies emotion:

ai que vergonha se ela chega a saber que eu copio as contas (How embarassing if she gets to know that I copy the arithmetic exercises. Aquilino Ribeiro, A Via Sinuosa, 1918.)

Se me chega a mostarda ao nariz... sou homem para ir à igreja e obrigá-los a enterrar lá a pequena. (If the mustard gets to my nose [i.e. if I get mad]… I am a man to go to church and force them to bury the little girl there. Júlio Diz, A Morgadinha dos Canaviais, 1868.)

In the following examples, se means if it is true that, and is followed by the indicative:

Se ele está em Portugal, tem que nos visitar. (If he is in Portugal, he has to pay us a visit.)

Se estás com fome, porque não comes qualquer coisa? (If you are hungry, why don’t you eat something?)

Se não foste tu quem pagou a conta, então quem foi? (If it was not you who paid the bill, who did?)

When se means whenever, the indicative follows as well. In these cases quando could be substituded for se:

Se eu olho para outra mulher, a minha namorada fica furiosa. (If/whenever I look at another woman, my girlfriend gets furious.)

E se alguém chegava perto para me fazer um gesto de consolo eu empurrava a criatura com mão impaciente. (If/whenever anybody got near to console me I would push the creature away with an impatient hand. Dinah Silveira de Queiroz, A Muralha, 1954.)

When se means whether it is followed by the indicative:

Não sei se eles já chegaram. (I don’t know whether they have arrived already.)

Não é da tua conta se eu vou ou não ao cinema. (It is none of your business whether I go to the movies or not.)

  • Não me parece que pôr se integrante e condicional seja grande ideia. É apenas uma coincidência infeliz oprtugues e ingles usarem palavras iguais para as duas funções (holandês tem als e of e eles não se misturam por exemplo).
    – Artefacto
    Jan 13 '16 at 19:59
  • @Artefacto Infeliz ou não, é uma coincidência real. Acho que ficou claro, até porque o inglês tem o whether, que ajuda a explicar o significado diferente.
    – Jacinto
    Jan 13 '16 at 20:07

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