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Portuguese Perfect vs. Imperfect Tense: Know When to Use Which

The Portuguese perfect and imperfect past tenses (pretérito perfeito and pretérito imperfeito in Portuguese) are often a headache for English native speakers and other language learners whose native tongue doesn’t make this distinction.

Briefly, the Portuguese perfect and imperfect past tenses imply different time-flow qualities. While the perfect tense denotes time-framed, completed actions, the imperfect tense suggests continuity and repetition. 

Let’s look at this short snippet where the perfect (blue) and imperfect (red) tenses naturally mingle throughout the text: 

Eram mais ou menos 13h quando o meu pai chegou a casa. Eu estava a comer o almoço e ele sentou-se ao meu lado sem dizer uma palavra. Eu senti que qualquer coisa estava mal. O meu pai era uma pessoa bastante faladora e aquele silêncio não era normal. Decidi então perguntar-lhe: “O que é que se passa?” Ele permaneceu calado e eu estava a ficar assustado. Passado um momento lá disse que …It was around 1 pm when my father got home. I was having lunch and he sat by my side without saying a word. I felt that something was wrong. My father was quite a talkative person and that silence didn’t fit him. I then decided to ask him: “What’s going on?”  He remained silent and I was getting scared. After some moments he finally said that…

As you see above, both tenses often correspond to the English past simple (not always), which can be confusing to many learners.

The purpose of this article is to help you develop a better idiomatic feel for Portuguese concerning the usage of these two verb aspects of the past tense. Accordingly, we’ll explore different situations and contextual subtleties that call to either the perfect or the imperfect tense.

Let’s get started. 

  

Terminological disambiguation

For this article, and for the sake of simplicity, I decided to go with the terms ‘perfect tense’  and ‘imperfect tense’  to denote the Portuguese tenses pretérito perfeito and pretérito imperfeito respectively (the word pretérito only means ‘past’). 

Possibly, you’ll also come across the English term ‘preterite’, which simply refers to pretérito perfeito.

Most importantly, don’t mix up the term ‘perfect tense’ – which I will be using throughout the article to denote the Portuguese past tense pretérito perfeito – with the English ‘past perfect’, which is also a past tense but implies a different time-flow quality.

Perfect tense

We use the Portuguese perfect past tense (aka preterite) to talk about completed actions. Normally, the English counterpart tense is either the past simple or the present perfect, depending on how sharply the sentence is time-situated. 

Let’s first look at its conjugation. 

Conjugation

Regular verbs

As you may know, there are three groups of regular verbs, namely, those whose infinitive forms end in either -ar, er, or -ir

Regular conjugation implies that the conjugated verb forms follow a regular inflection pattern. Here’s a conjugation example for each verb group (patterned endings marked in bold):

ANDAR
(walk)
VIVER
(live)
INSISTIR
(insist)
euandeiviviinsisti
tuandastevivesteinsististe
ele/elavocêandouviveuinsistiu
nósandamosvivemosinsistimos
vocêsandaramviveraminsistiram
eles/elasandaramviveraminsistiram

Reading tips! Learn more about Portuguese regular verbs and their conjugation patterns:
Portuguese Regular Verbs and Conjugation Patterns in the Present Tense
Portuguese Regular Verbs and Conjugation Patterns in the Past Tense

Irregular verbs

There are a handful of commonly used verbs that don’t follow any regular conjugation pattern. You may want to keep an eye on these: 

SER
(be)
IR
(go)
ESTAR
(be)
TER
(have)
eufuifuiestivetive
tufostefosteestivestetiveste
ele/elavocêfoifoiesteveteve
nósfomosfomosestivemostivemos
vocêsforamforamestiveramtiveram
eles/elasforamforamestiveramtiveram

Reading tips! Acquaint yourself with highly frequently used irregular verbs: Portuguese Must-Know Irregular Verbs.

Note that the verbs ser and ir share the same conjugation forms in the perfect tense. It is then the context determining which verb is actually being used. Typically, the verb ir is typically followed by a preposition of movement, whereas ser is often followed by an adjective or a pronoun: 

ir
Ontem fui ao cinema.
I went to the cinema yesterday.
foste às compras?
Have you already done the groceries?

ser
Ontem fui irresponsável.
Yesterday I was irresponsible.
Não foi ela, foste tu!
It was not her, it was you!

What’s more, the verbs estar and ter have similar verb forms, the only difference being that es-prefix in estar. In day-to-day spoken language, however, people often drop the es-prefix of estar and so you might find yourself a bit lost without knowing if they mean one or the other (then, again, it is the context that tells you which verb is being used).

There’re several other aspects of day-to-day spoken language that may make it difficult for you to keep up with native speakers. Enroll in this short course on Portuguese Connected Speech to overcome these barriers.

Speaking of the verbs ser and estar! As you may know, both correspond to the English verb to be. This duplicity often bewilders language learners: when to use one, when the other? If you, too, struggle with this, I suggest that you read this article: Portuguese Verbs ‘Ser’ and ‘Estar’- How and When to Use Either.

Here’re some more irregular verbs in the perfect tense:

cair (fall)dar (give)dizer (say)
fazer (do)haver (have)poder (can)
pôr (put)querer (want)saber (know)
sair (leave)trazer (bring)ver (see)
vir (come)

Tips! Use an online verb-conjugator to learn their conjugation, for instance, Reverso Conjugation.

Usage

The use of the perfect tense is straightforward. We use it to denote completed actions. Period.

Note, however, that this tense can correspond to either the English past simple or past perfect, depending on if the sentence carries a time-stamp with it or not.  Take a look at these examples:

Hoje de manhã comi torradas ao pequeno-almoço.
This morning, I had toast for breakfast.

fiz os deveres.
I’ve already done my homework.

As you see, both sentences imply completed actions and are, therefore, using the perfect tense. In English, however, the first sentence is using the past simple tense, while the second, having no time reference, is using the present perfect.

So, do keep in mind that the Portuguese perfect tense normally corresponds to either the English past simple or present perfect.

What’s more, when the time-stamp is loose, we often use a compound verb structure with the auxiliary estar conjugated in the perfect tense followed by the preposition a plus the main verb in the infinite form. In English, this structure normally corresponds to the present perfect continuous.

– O que fizeste hoje?
Estive a jogar futebol.

– What have you done today?
– I’ve been playing soccer.

Imperfect tense

We often use the Portuguese imperfect tense to talk about past durable actions that imply either continuity or repetition. Moreover, we use it to express politeness and desire, among other usages.   

Depending on the context, the English counterparts will be either the past simple, past continuous or other verb structures that we’ll soon go through.

Before we go on to the usage examples, let’s look at its conjugation. 

Conjugation

Regular verbs

Here’s what the imperfect tense regular conjugation looks like:

ANDAR
(walk)
VIVER
(live)
INSISTIR
(insist)
euandavaviviainsistia
tuandavasviviasinsistias
ele/elavocêandavaviviainsistia
nósandávamosvivíamosinsistíamos
vocêsandavamviviaminsistiam
eles/elasandavamviviaminsistiam

Irregular verbs

Irregular verbs in the imperfect tense are even fewer than in the perfect tense:

SER
(be)
TER
(have)
PÔR
(put)
eueratinhapunha
tuerastinhaspunhas
ele/elavocêeratinhapunha
nóséramostínhamospúnhamos
vocêseramtinhampunham
eles/elaseramtinhampunham

Note that the verb pôr has a few derivatives that follow the same conjugation pattern, for instance, the verbs impôr and repôr .

Usage

There are several contexts calling for the use of the imperfect tense. Let’s take a look at it. 

Regular actions 

We use the imperfect tense when we talk about past regular actions. Here’s an example:

Antigamente nadava quase todos os dias.
Before, I swam almost every day.

In this context, it is perhaps more common to use the auxiliary verb costumar in the imperfect tense followed by the main verb in the infinitive (analogous to the English verb structure used to + infinitive):

Antigamente costumava nadar quase todos os dias.
Before, I used to swim almost every day.

Keep in mind, whenever it feels suitable to use the structure used to + infinite in English, you will probably be using the imperfect tense in Portuguese (be it simple or compound conjugation).   

Continuity

We also use the imperfect tense to talk about an action that was taking place in the past. In English, it normally corresponds to the past continuous:

Eu falava com o Paulo quando alguém bateu à porta.
I was talking to Paulo when someone knocked on the door.

Nevava quando saí de casa.
It was snowing when I left home.

It is nonetheless more common to use a compound structure with the auxiliary verb estar conjugated in the imperfect and followed by the preposition a and the main verb in the infinitive:

Eu estava a falar com o Paulo quando alguém bateu à porta.
I was talking to Paulo when someone knocked on the door.

Estava a nevar quando saí de casa.
It was snowing when I left home.

This compound structure looks slightly different in the Brazilian standard where the main verb comes in the gerund and there is no preposition in between:

PT-BR
Eu estava falando com o Paulo quando alguém bateu à porta.
Estava nevado quando saí de casa.

Tips! Here’re a few reads to learn more about continuous and other tenses:
Portuguese verb usage and tenses: a practical guide anchored to English
Portuguese Gerund: Progressive Tenses and Beyond

Future in the past 

We also use the imperfect tense when, in the past time, we refer to the future. In English, that corresponds to either was/were going to or would:

Eu sabia que o autocarro chegava às 20h.
I knew that the bus was going to arrive at 8 pm.

Eu sabia que não me desiludias.
I knew that you wouldn’t disappoint me.

Alternatively, we can use the auxiliary ir in the imperfect tense plus the main verb the infinitive form: 

Eu sabia que o autocarro ia chegar às 20h.
I knew that the bus was going to arrive at 8 pm.

Eu sabia que não me ias desiludir.
I knew that you wouldn’t disappoint me.

Politeness

We use the imperfect tense to express politeness, for instance, when ordering something at a restaurant. Commonly used verbs in this context are querer, poder, and desejar among others. A few examples: 

Queria queijo e presunto para entrada, por favor.
I would like to have some cheese for starters, thank you.

Podia dizerme onde é a casa de banho?
Could you please tell me where the restroom is?

Wish

We also use the imperfect tense to express desire and wishes. In English, you’d typically use the structure would + infinitive:

Gostava de ir à Índia.
I would like to go to India.

Adora ver-te novamente.
I would love to see it again.

Conditional sentences

Another situation where we’d use the imperfect tense is in conditional sentences:

Se fizesses mais desporto estavas em melhor forma.
If you practiced more sports you would be in better shape. 

Se tivesses estudado mais tinhas passado no exame.
If you had studied more you would have passed the exam. 

Introduce a story

Finally, we use the imperfect tense when we contextualize or introduce a narrative:

Eram 20h quando ela chegou a casa.
It was 8 pm when she came home.

Decorria o ano de 1939 quando a segunda guerra mundial eclodiu.
It was 1939 when the Second World War started.

Tinha cinco anos quando o meu pai morreu.
I was five when my dad died.

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