Crasis: so tiny yet so misunderstood

865747_46618975Many native Portuguese speakers don’t really know how crases work: some change them for accute accents (e.g. as in “á”), simply forget them or even unnecessarily add them where they’re are not required.

The other day I found – written in a book(!) – a Portuguese sentence written wrong: “Ela precisa ir dormir até [sic] às 22h”. Which in English means “She needs to go to sleep by 10 p.m.”

Well, but aren’t we supposed to use “às” before using a point of time (e.g. 10p.m./10h)? Not always…

If you’re learning Portuguese as a foreign – or second – language you might be asking yourself: what the heck is a crasis? Keep on reading…

For starters, what is a crasis?
The name comes from the greek “krasis” which means mixture or fusion.
Before understanding what this mixture is about, let’s first know more about the Portuguese’s shortest word: “a”.

The word “a” can function in many different ways but mainly as:

  • definite article → used when one wants to talk about something specific.
    e.g.: A casa foi vendida. (The house was sold.)
    We’re not refering to any house but to the house, one that you and I already know what it is.
  • preposition → word used to connect an action (verb) to a information that complements the action.
    e.g.: Ela foi a sua casa. (She went to your house.)
         = Ela foi para sua casa. (She went to your house.)
    In Portuguese both “a” and “para” can be used as the English “to” when “to” is being used to demonstrate motion.

Tip: when “a” is being used as a preposition, it can usually be replaced by “para” which doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence nor makes you sound weird.

How about when we want to say we’re moving to a specific place?
I mean, we know that we use “a” when we refer to a specific place; we also know that we use it to demonstrate motion. How would we mix both meanings?
Simply by using “a” twice.
E.g. Ela foi a a academia. (She went to the gym.) → this example is not quite correct; carry on reading.

In the example above we’re not referring to any gym, but to the gym; one that you  (the reader) and I know. At the same time, we want to say that we move towards it, i.e. there was motion involved in the process.
The sentence is incorrect though because native Portuguese speakers (as I am) don’t speak nor write like that. The reason we don’t is that it’d sound like we were stammering. That’s why crases – also known as grave accent – comes in: it indicates the mixture (or fusion if you will) of 2 letters, in this case of “a” and “a”.
The example would be considered correct if it’s written like this:
Ela foi à academia. (She went to the gym.)

Now back on the time issue.

Tip: in Portuguese we do not use a.m. nor p.m. as we use the 24h counting system. English speakers may recognize that as the military time counting system, and it is in fact very similar to ours (but not the same).

Why is the sentence “ela precisa ir dormir até às (a + as) 22h” wrong?
Because we don’t want to give the idea that the person must to sleep exactly at 10 p.m., but that she can sleep at any time until 10.
Até” being a preposition already has its own meaning, so keeping both prepositions (“a” and “até”) make them conflict their meanings. If we take one “a” (the preposition) of the pair “a + as” all there’s left is “as”.
That said, the sentence would be correct if written as:
Ela precisa dormir até as 22h.

We should only keep one preposition and one article in that sentence.
As you’re an English speaker, you might be asking yourself “why should we use articles before time?”. Well, in Portuguese we consider the time of the day unique. For instance, duas horas (two hours) can be the duration of anything but “as duas horas (the two hours) are special ones, they’re the “two hours” of the day (i.e. 2 a.m.). During a day you won’t find other “duas horas” so that’s why we use the definite article.

The fact that we use articles in front of the time of the day, and at the same time we have a preposition with the same spelling, makes not only foreign learners but native speakers very confused. Once you get the logic of it though it’ll all make sense.

This post about crasis reminded me of other very commonly misused words in Portuguese: “aonde” and “onde”. Yep, there’s our little “a” making its mess again. But thats for another post. :P