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Portuguese Past Subjunctive: Conjugation and Usage

The subjunctive mood is often a source of much whining and moaning among Portuguese language learners – all those conjugations one must keep track of! 

We actually have 3 tenses within the subjunctive mood: past, present, and future. Today we are tackling specifically the past subjunctive (also known as the imperfect subjunctive).  

Shortly, we use the Portuguese past subjunctive in a host of different situations: from expressing uncertainty, desire, and unreal scenarios, to it being an integral part of subordinate clauses of various kinds.

In what follows, I am going to walk you through each of the different contexts – with concrete examples – in which we use the past subjunctive. 

We’ll start by looking into its conjugation.

Related reads!
Portuguese Present Subjunctive: Conjugation and Usage
Portuguese Future Subjunctive – Conjugation and Usage

How to conjugate the Portuguese past subjunctive

Regular verbs

The conjugation of regular verbs is straightforward and works the same way across our 3 conjugation groups. 

You just need to replace the final r  of the infinitive form with the endings marked in bold:

Pensar
1st conjugation
Acender
2nd conjugation
Intuir
3rd conjugation
Eupensasseacendesseintuisse
Tupensassesacendessesintuisses
Ele, ela, vocêpensasseacendesseintuisse
Nóspensássemosacendêssemosintuíssemos
Vocêspensassemacendessemintuissem
Eles, elaspensassemacendessemintuissem

Pronunciation tips! Notice how the 1-person plural is always stressed on the third last syllable (otherwise, we stress the second last). Learn more about word stress in Portuguese: Portuguese Word Stress and Accent Marks.

Irregular verbs

For irregular verbs, you go from the 3-person plural of the preterite tense (pretérito perfeito) and replace the -ram ending with the conjugated endings shown in the table above. Here’re a few examples:

3-person plural PreteritePast Subjunctive verb forms
ir / serforamfosse, fosses, fosse, fôssemos, fossem
fazerfizeramfizesse, fizesses, fizesse, fizéssemos, fizessem
tertiveramtivesse, tivesses, tivesse, tivéssemos, tivessem
trazertrouxeramtrouxesse, trouxesses, trouxesse, trouxéssemos, trouxessem
. . .

When to use the Portuguese past subjunctive

We use the Portuguese past subjunctive to express uncertainty, hypothetically, desire, and unreal scenarios. Besides these, it often appears in subordinate clauses of different sorts.

Below, we’ll look at when to use the Portuguese past subjunctive in greater detail.

Impersonal structures

We use the past subjunctive in impersonal structures, namely in this one: era (ser) + adjective + que + past subjunctive.

Era importante que tu viesses ao jantar.
It would mean a lot if you came over for dinner.

Era melhor que tu descansasses.
It would be better if you took a rest.

Notice that although the sentences above take both their verbs in a past tense – era (ser) is in the imperfect tense (infinitive) – they refer to a future time. 

However, in another context (and certainly expressed with a different tone of voice), the exact same sentence can pertain to a past time:

Era importante que tu viesses ao jantar.
It would have been important that you had come over for dinner. (he/she didn’t show up for dinner)

Now, if the verb ser is instead conjugated in the present tense, we use the present subjunctive:

É importante que tu venhas ao jantar.
It is important that you come over for dinner.

If you compare the translations, you’ll notice that the tone is now slightly more assertive and coaxing than the variant with the past subjunctive (the comparison only applies when referring to a future time). 

Doubtful statements (talvez)

We use the past subjunctive in association with the adverb talvez (maybe) to hypothesize and express doubt: 

O Paulo esteve em Lisboa e não me disse nada. Talvez quisesse estar sozinho.
Paulo was in Lisbon and didn’t let me know. Maybe he needed to be on his own.

Ela não me ligou ontem! Talvez estivesse ocupada.
She didn’t call me yesterday. Maybe she was busy.

With certain verbs (like poder or conseguir), the past subjunctive preceded by talvez can refer to a future time:

Talvez pudesses vir cá amanhã? (future)
Maybe you could drop by tomorrow?

! Note that it is also possible to use the present subjunctive in the sentence above, Talvez possas vir cá amanhã. The difference is that the doubt conveyed by talvez gets more amplified by the past subjunctive. 

Unreal scenarios

We use the past subjunctive to express unlikely or even unreal scenarios. In that case, the verb form is normally preceded by either se or caso:

Se eu fosse uma estrela de rock, passava a vida em turné.
If I were a rock star, I would spend my life on the road.

Caso eu tivesse muito dinheiro, doava pelo menos uma metade.
If I had a lot of money, I would give away at least half of it.

! These structures are a subset of the broader conditional clauses’ category that we will soon look at. 

Metaphorical comparisons

We use the structure como + se + past subjunctive to establish allegorical comparisons or give an exaggerated picture of something: 

Ele come como se fosse um lobo faminto.
He eats as if he was a starving wolf.

Ela fala com o gato como se ele a compreendesse.
She speaks to the cat as if it understood her.

Suggestions

We use the past subjunctive to make suggestive questions. In this case, we begin the question with either e se… or que tal se… followed by the verb:

E se fôssemos ao cinema hoje à noite?
What about going to the cinema this evening?

Que tal se comêssemos um gelado?
What if we ate an ice cream?

Exclamative sentences

We use the past subjunctive to express hopes and wishes. In this case, the verb form follows exclamative expressions such as oxalá, quem me dera, or tomara que

Oxalá o Miguel conseguisse passar no exame.
I hope that Miguel will pass the exam.

Tomara que eles não chegassem atrasados.
I hope they won’t arrive late.

! Note that we also use the present subjunctive in conjunction with these exclamatory expressions. The difference is that the latter, compared to the past subjunctive, implies that the chances that a certain wish will come true are higher. 

Subordinate clauses

In general, we use the past subjunctive in subordinate clauses when the main clause’s verb is also in a past tense (either in the preterite or imperfect of the indicative). 

Otherwise, if the main clause’s verb is in the present tense (indicative), we are likely to use the present subjunctive in the subordinate clause.

Reading tips! Subordinate clauses are normally introduced by conjunctions or conjunctional phrases (also known as linking words). Learn more about them: Portuguese Conjunctions: A Practical Guide Anchored to English.

And again, here’s the twin-read on the present subjunctive’s usage: Present Subjunctive in Portuguese: How and When to Use It.

Concessive clauses

We use the past subjunctive in concessive clauses*, namely those introduced by linking words such as embora, mesmo que, ainda que, or se bem que, among others:

O Joel ia sempre à praia, mesmo que estivesse a chover.
Joel would always go to the beach, even if it were rainy weather.

Embora não gostasse de voar, fi-lo várias vezes por motivos profissionais.
Although I didn’t like to fly, I did it several times for professional reasons.

* Concessive clauses express an idea that is in opposition to the main clause. In English, concessives clauses are often introduced with the linking words although, even if, even though, or despite the fact, among others. 

Conditional clauses

We use the past subjunctive in conditional clauses, namely those introduced by conjunctions such as caso, sem que, desde que, a menos que, or a não ser que:  

Desde que me alimentasse bem, não tinha problemas de saúde.
As long as  I was eating well, I felt no health problems.

A Joana planeava ir ao Japão no verão, a não ser que os planos de férias fossem alterados .
Joana planned to go to Japan, unless her vacation dates had been altered.

* Conditional clauses express contingency. In English, conditional clauses are often introduced by if, in case, unless, as long as, among others. 

Also, the verbs in main clauses above (tinha/planeava) are conjugated in the imperfect tense. In a more formal register, however, we often use the conditional mood (teria/planearia). 

Complement clauses

We use the past subjunctive in complement clauses* alongside verbs that express feelings, doubts, orders, or wishes:

O banco exigiu que eu pagasse a dívida até ao final do mês.
The bank demanded that I paid back the loan by the end of this month.

Eu estava com medo que não chegassem a tempo.
I was afraid that you wouldn’t arrive on time.

* Complement clauses, also known as completive clauses, complete the idea of the verb in the main clause. They are often introduced by the linking word that, but also by to or even a present participle (the -ing verb form).  

Time clauses

We use the past subjunctive in time clauses*. The latter are often introduced by the linking words antes que, até que, logo que, or equanto, among others:

Ele saía sempre de casa antes que começasse a ficar quente demais.
He’d always leave home before it started to get too hot.

Enquanto estivesse mau tempo, eu não saía de casa.
For as long as it was raining, I wouldn’t leave home.

* Time clauses locate time as occurring prior, simultaneously, or after that of the main clause. In English, time clauses are often introduced by linking expressions such as before, as soon as, as long as, or until, among others. 

Final clauses

We use the past subjunctive in final clauses*often  introduced by conjunctions such as para que or a fim de que:

Eu estudei Economia para que pudesse ser corretor da bolsa.
I studied Economics so that I could become a financial broker. 

Renovaste o apartamento a fim de que ela ficasse impressionada?
Did you renovate the apartment so that she’d be impressed? 

* Final clauses express intention or purpose.  In English, final clauses are often introduced by linking words such as to, in order to, or so that.

Tips! If you’ve enjoyed this article you might as well take a look at this one: Portuguese Verb Tenses and Moods Explained: A Usage Rundown Anchored to English

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