How and when to use ‘supposed to’ (Eng vs. Pt)

By: Michael

Jan 2019

How and when to use ‘supposed to’ (Eng vs. Pt)

You have probably already noticed that supposed to + verb is a common and useful structure in English. It can be a difficult structure to use though, especially because there is no single translation for it in Portuguese. Let’s have a look at its meaning and go through some guidance on when we can use it.

‘Supposed to’ is often used to express the following or a mixture of the following:

  • Obligation - You are supposed to recycle all plastics and bottles.
  • Expectation - We are supposed to be there by 7pm.
  • Something we believe to be true - This is supposed to be the best burger in New York.


When indicating obligation, it is commonly translated as ‘dever’ or ‘ter que’. You might think, ‘Well, in that case can’t I simply use ‘have to’ or ‘must’?’. You can but keep in mind that these options express different levels of obligation:

  • You must arrive before the film starts. (a strong obligation that sounds like a rule. Perhaps the cinema does not allow entry after the film starts)
  • You are supposed to arrive before the film starts (there is some obligation but it’s not as strong, i.e. it’s not a major problem if the person arrives after the film starts)

The main difference is that must indicates a strict obligation and supposed to indicates obligation but with some potential for choice. This same logic applies in reverse when using a negative structure:

  • I'm not supposed to to tell you but....


When talking about things that are arranged or intended, we often use ‘supposed to’:

  • I am supposed to work 8 hours on weekdays.
  • We are supposed to be meeting on Saturday.

When talking about plans with ‘supposed to’ there is often an added meaning that it might not happen:

  • I am supposed to work 8 hours on weekdays (but on Fridays I can leave work a bit earlier).
  • We are supposed to be meeting on Saturday (but Jane hasn’t fully confirmed yet).

When it comes in the past, ‘supposed to’ can be translated as ‘era para’, as in:

  • It was supposed to be a surprise party. (someone ruined the surprise...)
    • Era para ser uma festa surpresa.
  • The weather was supposed to be sunny today. (but now it’s raining)
    • Era para o dia estar ensolarado hoje.

Something we believe to be true

We often use ‘supposed to’ when we have heard about something or simply because it is common opinion.

  • That house is supposed to be haunted. (that’s what I’ve heard)
    • Aquela casa é supostamente assombrada / Dizem que aquela casa é assombrada.


As you can see, there are many ways to use 'supposed to' and is much more common than it's closest Portuguese equivalent, 'supostamente'.

We hope this guide has been helpful and remember that when you learn something new, you're supposed to practice it so that you don't forget it. You can find some practice exercises here.

Related articles:

  • [Coming soon: when to use 'should' vs. 'supposed to']
  • [Coming soon: how to use 'to suppose']