Surprise surprise!

Do you know what constipado means in Portuguese? Probably not what you are thinking...

Get a list of 50+ Must-Know English-Portuguese False Friends and be surprised.

Are you struggling with your pronunciation?

That's because you have yet to learn the Sounds of Portuguese.

Learn more

This article is brought to you by StoryLift

Let the Power of Stories Lift Your Portuguese.

Learn more

Portuguese Past Tenses – Usage Rundown Anchored to English

In this article, we will take a look at the Portuguese equivalents to the English past simple, past continuous, and past perfect tenses.

I will be using the verb dormir* (sleep) for all the examples below:

Dormir | Preterite
Pretérito perfeito
Dormir | Imperfect
Pretérito imperfeito
Eudormidormia
Tudormistedormias
Ele, eladormiudormia
Nósdormimosdormíamos
Vocês
Eles, elas
dormiramdormiam
Present participle
Gerúndio
dormindo
Past participle
Particípio passado
dormido

* Learn more about the conjugational patterns of the past tense:  Portuguese Regular Verbs for the Past Tense

Let’s get started. 

Tips! Here’re a couple of analogous reads about the Portuguese present and future tenses:
Portuguese Present Tenses – Usage Rundown Anchored to English
Portuguese Future Tenses – Usage Rundown Anchored to English

Past simple

In Portuguese, there are two past tenses* that often map to the English past simple, that is the preterite (pretérito perfeito) and the imperfect (pretérito imperfeito).

This often causes confusion in learners whose native tongue doesn’t have this tense nuance (English included). Let’s then try to wrap our heads around it.

* Linguists and grammarians use the term “verb aspects” to distinguish between these two variants of the past tense (there is only one past tense).

Preterite – completed actions

We use the preterite to talk about past actions that are completed and well delimited in time: 

A Raquel dormiu até às 10 da manhã.
Raquel slept until 10 in the morning.

As you can see above, the preterite (dormiu) translates to the past simple (slept) in English.

Note that we also use the preterite in situations where, in English, we use the present perfect:

A Raquel dormiu bem.
Raquel has slept well. 

Imperfect – repetitive actions, continuity, and context

Let’s now take a look at a sentence denoting a past repetitive action:

Antigamente, a Raquel dormia 10 horas todas as noites.
Back in time, Raquel slept 10 hours every night. 

Note that the sentence above doesn’t imply a complete action. Instead, it illustrates something that used to happen repetitively in the past. 

In other words, it gives us a picture of how things were before, day after day, or night after night in the case at hand – there’s a sense of continuity to it.

Here’s something that can be helpful. As a rule of thumb, if you can replace the past simple with the structure used to + infinitive (while keeping the sentence’s spirit), it is then the Portuguese imperfect tense that applies:

Antigamente, a Raquel dormia 10 horas todas as noites.
Back in time, Raquel used to sleep 10 hours every night. 

What’s more, we use the imperfect to contextualize and introduce a situation or scenario. In other words, we use it descriptively and, again, there’s an implied sense of continuity:

Havia um silêncio absoluto e a Raquel dormia profundamente. 
There was complete silence and Raquel slept on deeply.

Preterite and imperfect interwoven

Often, the preterite and imperfect tenses co-exist in the same sentence. In that case, there’s a strong sense of punctuality associated with the preterite, and one of continuity associated with the imperfect:

A Raquel dormia quando o seu telemóvel tocou.
Raquel was sleeping when her mobile rang

Note the sense of continuity in dormia – something that went on … – and the sense of punctuality in tocou – something that happened all of a sudden.

Note also that the English sentence translates dormia with the past continuous (not the past simple). 

As a matter of fact, in this context of a continued action followed by a punctual one, we often use the Portuguese equivalent of the past continuous (instead of one single verb in the imperfect tense). That’s where we are heading next.

Further reading! Go deeper into the usage differences between these two past tenses: Portuguese Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense: Know When to Use Which.

Past continuous

We use the past continuous (or the Portuguese equivalent of it) to denote ongoing actions in the past.

The past continuous implies compound conjugation and, as such, we’ll need the auxiliary verb estar (imperfect tense), the Portuguese counterpart of the verb to be:

Estar | Imperfect
Pretérito imperfeito
Euestava
Tuestavas
Ele, elaestava
Nósestávamos
Vocês
Eles, elas
estavam

Reading tips! There are actually two (!) verbs to be in Portuguese, namely ser and estar. Dig deeper into their differences: Portuguese Verbs ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar’- How and When to Use Either.

So, the auxiliary verb estar comes in the imperfect tense and will be followed by the preposition a and the main verb (dormir) in the infinitive form. 

estar (imperfect) → a → dormir (infinitive)
A Raquel estava a dormir quando o seu telemóvel tocou.
Raquel was sleeping when her mobile rang

Note that in Brazilian Portuguese, the Portuguese equivalent of past continuous looks slightly different: 

estar (imperfect) → dormir (present participle)
A Raquel estava dormindo quando o seu telemóvel tocou.
Raquel was sleeping when her mobile rang

Now, there are situations where this past continuous link between English and Portuguese is lost. Take the following example:

What have you been doing, Raquel?
– I was sleeping

In this situation, I was sleeping is not so much denoting a continuous action as it is stating something that Raquel had done before – an action that had been completed by the time she answers the question.

In this context, we would conjugate the auxiliary verb in the preterite instead:

– O que estiveste a fazer?
Estive a dormir

Past perfect

The Portuguese equivalent of the past perfect uses the auxiliary verb ter conjugated in the imperfect tense:

Ter | Imperfect
Pretérito imperfeito
Eutinha
Tutinhas
Ele, elatinha
Nóstínhamos
Vocês
Eles, elas
tinham

As you know, the past perfect refers to actions completed before a point in the past. Notice how similar the Portuguese and English verb structures are:

ter (imperfect) → dormir (past participle)
A Raquel tinha dormido bem na noite anterior.
Raquel had slept well the previous night. 

Note that in Portuguese there’s also a non-compound version of the present perfect, that is, the pluperfect tense (pretérito mais-que-perfeito). Here’s our main verb in the pluperfect tense:

Dormir | Pluperfect
Pretérito mais-que-perfeito
Eudormira
Tudormiras
Ele, eladormira
Nósdormíramos
Vocês
Eles, elas
dormiram

Accordingly, the past perfect used in the sentence above can be replaced with the pluperfect without any change in the time-flow quality:

dormir (pluperfect)
A Raquel dormira bem na noite anterior.
Raquel had slept well the night before. 

Now, I must conclude by saying that there is a difference in style between the two – the pluperfect is far more formal and mostly used in written language.

Reading tips! Further explore the Portuguese Past Participle: Portuguese Past Participle and Auxiliary Verbs that Go with It.

Portuguese Language Retreats

Lift your Portuguese to a new level in a peaceful, language-immersive environment. 

Learn more

Intensive Courses in Portugal

Get right on track towards fluency 

Learn more

Stay tuned for upcoming online courses and other learning materials.

Your opinion matters

Olá! Is there any topic you'd like me to cover in future posts? Feel free to suggest. I'm all ears.

Thank you for using Portuguesepedia. Até já, p

Share me