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Recently, I was chatting with a refugee from Syria, a young woman with a degree in architecture, who is still learning Portuguese. I happened to say, just en passant, that my secretary is very "eficiente". That non-native speaker immediately asked me why I had used "eficiente": "Could one not say 'eficaz' instead?" I answered "no", and there came the inevitable "why not?"

At that moment, all I could say was that "a person is eficiente" and "a prescription drug is eficaz". It's very easy for a native speaker to say when to use one or the other, but sometimes difficult to explain why. The Priberam offers the following definitions for each adjective:

eficaz

  1. Que tem eficácia.
  2. Que produz determinado efeito.
  3. Que efetua o que promete ou o que se espera; que causa o resultado inicialmente pretendido.

eficiente

  1. Que funciona, produzindo o efeito esperado. = APROPRIADO, EFICAZ ≠ INEFICAZ
  2. Que tem competência ou reúne as condições e características apropriadas para a consecução de algo. = CAPAZ, COMPETENTE ≠ INCOMPETENTE
  3. Que tem um desempenho conforme as normas.
  4. Que obtém resultados ou tem o funcionamento esperado com uma maior economia de recursos e/ou tempo (ex.: o equipamento da fábrica é eficaz, mas pouco eficiente porque gasta muita energia).

Question: Is there a simple, foolproof manner to explain the difference between these two words to a non-native speaker of the Portuguese language?

Addendum: I've seen even native speakers confuse these two words before. Although the answer may be simple and easy to find, I think posting it here will prove useful to our non-native speakers.

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    I'd say "eficaz" is an one-off adjective, while "eficiente" is a continuous practice adjective. Your secretary earned the characteristic "eficiente" by continuously doing work considered to be "eficaz". – Ramon Melo Feb 27 '17 at 16:42
  • "although the answer may be simple and easy to find, I think posting it here will prove useful to our non-native speakers." I don't think the answer is easy to find. I googled it and got many answers, for sure, but most of them came from business science sites, which - pardon my bluntness - are known to resort to anglicisms and neologisms often, and bear little to no authority over the language. (cont.) – Ramon Melo Feb 27 '17 at 16:55
  • (cont.) Their explanations are bullshit and stem from the same Peter Ducker quote (translated from English). Infopédia - a far more authoritative source - seems to disagree with them, but also didn't bother to add an explanation. – Ramon Melo Feb 27 '17 at 16:56
  • " It's very easy for a native speaker to say when to use one or the other" - this is not my experience. It's a common discussion in my university groups; people don't usually know the difference - I didn't, and most others didn't either. – ANeves Feb 27 '17 at 18:24
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In my experience, most native speakers don't know (and frankly speaking, don't care about) the difference. Where I usually see people explaining (and caring about) it, is in companies training/coaching programs, and the most common explanation is:

  • eficiente: do things the right way (the best possible way, faster, cheaper, and so on)
  • eficaz: do the right thing (exactly that one thing that really solves the problem)

So it's possible to be just one of them or both, depending on what you do.

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The main difference in the meaning of the two words is the fourth item in the definition you have:

4.Que obtém resultados ou tem o funcionamento esperado com uma maior economia de recursos e/ou tempo (ex.: o equipamento da fábrica é eficaz, mas pouco eficiente porque gasta muita energia).

When a native speaker says "eficiente", they usually refer not only to the fact that the action was accomplished with a satisfactory result, but also that it was done quickly and with the best usage of the available resources. On the other hand, "eficaz" is more about the fact itself than the objective that was achieved.

"Eficaz" is focused on the accomplishment itself:

A secretária resolveu completamente o problema da empresa. Sua solução foi eficaz.

In this case, the secretary was "eficaz".

"Eficiente" is focused on how the objective was achieved quickly and smartly:

A secretária realizou todas as análises durante o horário do almoço. Ela trabalha de forma muito eficiente.

In this case, the secretary was "eficiente".

  • Apenas um lembrete: o autor da pergunta mencionou o termo "eficaz", e não "efetivo". Você talvez queira editar a resposta para refletir isto. – Ramon Melo Feb 27 '17 at 16:38
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    Welcome to the community, @LucasFrancisco. This is a good quality first answer, good job! – ANeves Feb 27 '17 at 18:30
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As a native speaker, I would always use "eficiente" to qualify a person and/or her work. I'd use "eficaz" to qualify for example the effect of a drug in curing a disease.

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