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Portuguese verbs are infamously known to be highly inflected, which of course is a hard-to-chew bit for anyone learning the language (especially if you are not acquainted with any Romance language from before).
Now, it is one thing to keep track of all the different verb forms and spellings (memorizing), it is another to develop a sound understanding of when to use a given verb tense or structure. This article focus on the latter.
I’ve taken great pains with writing this long post for you to get a decent grasp of which verb tenses, moods, or structures may apply to a number of different everyday life situations.
In what follows, we’ll be looking into Portuguese verb usage anchored to English tenses. In this way, and since you are already familiarised with English, it will be easier for you to navigate the Portuguese verb system.
To make it simpler, I will be using English terminology when referring to Portuguese verb tenses and structures. Thus, when I entitle a section with, say, past continuous, I only mean the Portuguese equivalent to that denomination.
As made mentioned before, the focus of this post is not verb conjugation itself. If you need help with that to follow along, consider having at hand an online verb-conjugation tool such as Reverso Conjugation.
Portuguese present tenses
Present tenses are normally used to denote the present time.
To exemplify the different tenses, I will be using the verb ensinar (teach). This verb belongs to the first group of regular verbs whose infinitive form ends in -ar (patterned endings italicized):
Like English, you’d often use this tense when referring to something done on a regular basis (habits, repeated actions, etc). Here’s an example:
ensinar (present) Eu ensino Português numa escola de línguas. I teach Portuguese in a language school.
Expressing future time
You can also use the present simple to express a future time (with the help of an adverb or adverbial phrase of time indicating a time ahead):
adverb of time > ensinar (present) No próximo mês, ensino só às tardes. Next month, I will teach only in the afternoons.
! No auxiliary verb
In Portuguese, unlike English, you don’t need any auxiliary verb (verb do) to negate a sentence or to form a question. (This only applies to sentences with simple tenses.)
Accordingly, you can negate an affirmative sentence by simply placing the negative não in front of the verb:
não > ensinar (present) Eu não ensino Português. Eu ensino Alemão. I do not teach Portuguese. I teach German.
Neither do you need an auxiliary verb to form interrogative sentences:
Tu ensinas Português. > Tu ensinas Português? You teach Portuguese. > Do you teach Portuguese?
The same holds true for interrogative sentences initiated with a question word:
Que línguas é que tu ensinas? Which languages do you teach?
The present continuous tense denotes an ongoing action, something that is happening at the moment it is mentioned. We’ll now be using the auxiliary verb estar, the Portuguese counterpart of the verb to be:
The present continuous is formed by conjugating the auxiliary estar in the present simple and adding thereafter the preposition a. The main verb, in the infinitive form, comes last:
estar (present) > a > ensinar (infinitive) A Carolina está a ensinar Português em Praga. Carolina is teaching Portuguese in Prague.
Notice that the present continuous, like all progressive tenses, looks slightly different in the Brazilian standard – you’d leave out the preposition after the auxiliary verb, and the main verb comes in the present participle (-ing form equivalent) instead *. This verb structure is closer to English:
estar (present) > ensinar (present participle) A Carolina está ensinando Português em Praga. Carolina is teaching Portuguese in Prague.
Unlike English, you build interrogative sentences from declarative sentences without changing the word order:
estar (present) > a > ensinar (infinitive) A Carolina está a ensinar Português em Praga? Is Carolina teaching Portuguese in Prague?
Still unlike English, you’d place the negative adverb in front of both verbs to negate the original sentence:
não > estar (present) > a > ensinar (infinitive) A Carolina nãoestá a ensinar Português em Praga. Carolina is not teaching Portuguese in Prague.
All perfect tenses use ter as the auxiliary verb (the Portuguese counterpart of have). Concerning the present perfect tenses, in particular, the auxiliary verb ter comes in the present simple tense:
Ter | Present Presente
Now, in English, the present perfect tenses refer to either unfinished (still ongoing) or completed actions. The Portuguese present perfect equivalent (structure-wise), however, refers to unfinished actions only. Let’s take a closer view of that.
We tend to use the present perfect continuous to refer to actions that started in the past and continue all the way up to the present. Here’s an example of what that can look like in Portuguese:
ter (present) > ensinar (past participle) A Carolina tem ensinado Português desde que chegou à Itália. Carolina has been teaching Portuguese since she came to Italy.
Notice that the verb structure above resembles more the English past perfect simple than the continuous. However, you can perfectly use a version more akin to the latter without any change in meaning (both as correct):
ter (present) > estar (past participle) > a > ensinar (infinitive) A Carolina tem estado a ensinar Português desde que chegou à Itália. Carolina has been teaching Portuguese since she came to Italy.
As already mentioned, all continuous tenses have a slightly different verb structure in Brazilian Portuguese (the preposition a is left out and the main verb occurs in the present participle form instead of the infinitive):
ter (present) > estar (past participle) > ensinar (present participle) A Carolina tem estado ensinado Português desde que chegou à Itália.
Last but not least, you could perfectly express the same time-flow quality of these present perfect tenses (unfinished actions) by instead using the simpler present continuous, which is very common:
estar (present) > a > ensinar (infinitive) A Carolina está a ensinar Português desde que chegou à Itália.
Or in the Brazilian standard:
estar (present) > ensinar (present participle) A Carolina está ensinando Português desde que chegou à Itália.
In English, present perfect tenses (both simple and continuous) often refer to completed past actions. In Portuguese, however, we are likely to use a simple tense, the preterite (we will talk about the preterite in a moment):
Present perfect simple
ensinar (preterite) A Carolina ensinou Português a mais de 300 estudantes. Carolina has taught Portuguese to over 300 students.
Present perfect continuous
estar (preterite) > a > ensinar (infinitive) A Carolina esteve a ensinar Português durante todo o dia, agora está cansada. Carolina has been teaching Portuguese all day long, so she is tired now.
Here’s the sentence above according to the Brazilan standard *:
estar (preterite) > ensinar (present participle) A Carolina esteve ensinando Português durante todo o dia, agora está cansada. Carolina has been teaching Portuguese all day long, so she is tired now.
In the examples above, we’ve used a past tense, namely the preterite, to match the English present perfect (in the context of a finished action). Let’s move on and take a closer look at Portuguese past tenses.
There are in Portuguese two past tenses* that may map to the English past simple, namely the preterite and the imperfect.
* In more rigorous terminology, we should say two verb aspects of the past tense. (there’s only one past tense)
Preterite – completed actions and punctuality
We use the preterite when referring to past actions that are completed:
comer (preterite) O Joel comeu o pequeno almoço às 7 da manhã. Joel ate breakfast at 7 am.
As we’ve seen above (under the present perfect tenses), we also use the preteritetense in situations where the English present perfect is expressing an action that is complete:
O Joel comeu pizza esta semana. Joel haseatenpizza this week.
Imperfect – repetitive actions and continuity
Let’s now take a look at a sentence implying continuity:
comer (imperfect) Antigamente, o Joel comia peixe três vezes por semana. Before, Joel ate fish three times a week.
Note that the above sentence doesn’t denote any complete action. Instead, it portrays something that used to happen in the past, namely that Joel used to eat fish three times every week. In other words, it gives us a picture of how things were before, and, in that way, there is a sense of continuity to it.
As a rule of thumb, if you can replace the English past simple with the structure used to + infinitive while keeping the same time-flow quality, it is then the imperfect that applies:
Antigamente, o Joel comia carne muito raramente. Before, Joel used toeat meat very seldom.
Preterite and imperfect dancing together
More often than not, preterite and imperfect are interwoven in the same sentence. Here’s an example:
comer (imperfect) … tocar (preterite) O Joel comia o seu almoço quando o telefone tocou. Joel ate lunch while the telephone rang.
In the sentence above, there are two distinct parts, each with a different verb aspect. In the first part of the sentence – O Joel comia o seu almoço – there is that sense of continuity that we’ve just seen above, thus the imperfect tense.
Yet, in the second part – … quando o telefone tocou – a sudden, punctual action unfolds (the telephone rings), thus implying completeness. At some point, the telephone rang while Joel was eating his lunch. In that case, the verb appears in the preterite tense.
The past continuous is used to denote ongoing actions in the past.
Like the present continuous, it implies continuity and uses estar as the auxiliary verb – this time around conjugated in the imperfect tense:
Estar | Imperfect Pretérito imperfeito
Here’s an example:
estar (imperfect) + a + comer (infinitive) O Joel estava acomer o almoçoquando alguém bateu à porta. Joel was eating lunch when someone knocked at the door.
As you already know by now, all continuous tenses look slightly different in the Brazilian standard:
estar (imperfect) + comer (present participle) O Joel estava comendo o almoçoquando alguém bateu à porta. Joel was eating lunch when someone knocked at the door.
Now, the sense of continuity implied by the past continuous can also be achieved with the imperfecttense alone. In other words, the imperfect and the past continuous tenses are often interchangeable:
comer (imperfect) O Joel comia o almoçoquando alguém bateu à porta. Joel was eating lunch when someone knocked at the door.
Like the present perfect, the past perfect tenses use ter as the auxiliary verb, in this case, conjugated in the imperfect tense:
Ter | Imperfect Pretérito imperfeito
Past perfect simple
The past perfect simple refers to actions completed before a point in the past. Notice how the Portuguese and English verb structures are similar:
ter (imperfect) + comer (past participle) O Joel tinha comido doces pouco antes do jantar. Joel had eaten sweets just before dinner.
As you can see in the example above, the auxiliary verb is conjugated in the imperfect tense followed by the past participle of the main verb.
Portuguese pluperfect tense
In Portuguese, there is 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 (patterned endings italicized):
Comer |Pluperfect Pretérito mais-que-perfeito
Accordingly, the past perfect used in the sentence above can be replaced with the pluperfect without any essential change in its time-flow:
comer (pluperfect) O Joel comera doces pouco antes do jantar. Joel had eaten sweets just before dinner.
Now, there is a difference in style between the two – the pluperfectis more formal and used less in spoken language.
Past perfect continuous
The difference between past perfect simple and past perfect continuous is subtle, but there is still a difference: the latter refers to ongoing actions toward a point in the past.
Like any other continuous tense, it uses the auxiliary verb estar. Here’s an example:
ter (imperfect) + estar (past participle) + a + comer (infinitive) O Joel tinha estado a comer doces até à hora do jantar. Joel had been eating sweets up until it was time for dinner.
Here’s what this continuous tense look like in Brazilian Portuguese:
ter (imperfect) + estar (past participle) + comendo (present participle) O Joel tinha estado comendo doces até à hora do jantar. Joel had been eating sweets up until it was time for dinner.
Future tenses are normally used to talk about actions that haven’t yet taken place.
We will be working with the verb partir (leave) to exemplify both the future simple and the future-in-the-past tenses.
This verb belongs to the third group of regular verbs – its infinitive form ends with -ir. Note that the futuro tense shown below is always formed with the same endings (regardless of the verb in question):
Partir | Future Futuro
Here’s an example with the future tense:
partir (future) O comboio partirá às 9 da manhã. The train will leave at 9 am.
Now, this tense is rarely used in daily life. Let’s look at something more colloquial and akin to the English verb-structure be going to.
Ir + infinitive
The verb structure ir+infinitiveis more commonly used in the spoken language compared to the future tense above. Like the English be going to, we’ll need an auxiliary verb, namely ir (go):
Ir | Present Presente
So, you’re more much more likely to see the sentence above expressed this way:
ir (present) > partir (infinitive) O comboio vai partir às 9 da manhã. The train is going to leave at 9 pm.
This time, we have the auxiliary verb ir in the present tense followed by the infinitive form of the main verb, that is, partir.
Importantly, while in English there may be a subtle difference in usage between the future structures will+infinitive and be going to, in Portuguese, the difference between the future tense (futuro)and the structure ir+infinitive only concerns the tone – the latter is more colloquial.
Future in the past
When we talk about the future from a time in the past we use the future-in-the-past tense. Like the future simple, the future-in-the-past has two different forms in English: would and was going to.
In Portuguese, there are three ways of expressing this tense. Instead of the futuretense, we’ll be now using either the conditionalor the imperfect tense. When using the ir+infinitive version, the ir verb will now be conjugated in the imperfect tense (patterned endings italicized):
Ir |Imperfect Pretérito imperfeito
Partir | Imperfect Pretérito imperfeito
Partir |Conditional Condicional
Here are three examples, one for each variant:
ir (imperfect) > partir (infinitive) Eu sabia que o comboio ia partir às 9 da manhã em ponto. I knew that the train was going to leave at 9 am sharp.
partir (imperfect) Eu sabia que o comboio partia às 9 da manhã em ponto. I knew that the train was going to leave at 9 am sharp.
partir (conditional) Eu sabia que o comboio partiria às 9 da manhã em ponto. I knew that the train was going to leave at 9 am sharp.
Notice that the last alternative, the conditional tense (like the future tense), is less colloquial than the other alternatives, thus less commonly used in daily life.
To exemplify the remaining future tenses, I am now shifting the main verb to aprender (learn), which belongs to the second group of regular verbs (patterned endings italicized):
Aprender | Present Presente
The future continuous tense indicates that something will occur in the future and continue for an expected length of time. Let’s take a look at two different alternatives, of which the second is more colloquial:
estar (future) > a > aprender (infinitive) No próximo ano estarei a aprender Árabe no Egito. Next year I will be learning Arabic in Egypt.
ir (present) > estar (infinitive) > a > aprender (infinitive) No próximo ano vou estar a aprender Árabe no Egito. Next year I will be learning Arabic in Egypt.
Because it is a continuous tense, the verb estar is now being used as an auxiliary verb: in the first sentence conjugated in the future tense,and in the second in the infinitive form (as part of the auxiliary compound ir+estar).
As I’ve been mentioning, continuous tenses look slightly different in the Brazilian standard, that is, the preposition is left out and the main verb comes in the present participle:
estar (future) > aprender (present participle) No próximo ano estarei aprendendo Árabe no Egito. Next year I will be learning Arabic in Egypt.
ir (present) > estar (infinitive) > aprender (present participle) No próximo ano vou estar aprendendo Árabe no Egito. Next year I will be learning Arabic in Egypt.
The future perfect tense refers to a completed action in the future.
As in any other perfect tense, we will be using auxiliary verb ter, this time aroundconjugated in the future tense (patterned endings italicized):
Ter | Future Futuro
Here’s an example:
ter (future) > aprender (past participle) Eu terei aprendido algum Árabe no final do próximo ano. I will have learned some Arabic by the end of next year.
As you see above, our auxiliary verb (ter) is conjugated in the future and followed by the main verb (aprender) in the past participle.
Interestingly, this tense can be also used to refer to a time in the past, namely when you are supposing that someone has done something or something has happened:
ter (future) > aprender (past participle) Ele terá aprendido algum Árabe quando esteve no Egito. He may have learned some Arabic when he was in Egypt.
Future perfect continuous
The future perfect continuous describes actions that will unfold up until a point in the future. As in any other continuous tense, you can count the verb estar into the mix:
ter (future) > estar (past participle) > a > aprender (infinitive) Em 2023, eu terei estado a aprender Árabe há 3 anos. In 2013, I will have been learning Arabic for 3 years.
In the sentence above you have the auxiliary compound with ter and estar, followed by the preposition a and the main verb aprender.
And here is the Brazilian Portuguese variant without the preposition and with the main verb in the present participle form:
ter (future) > estar (past participle) > aprender (present participle) Em 2023, eu terei estado aprendendo Árabe há 3 anos. In 2013, I will have been learning Arabic for 3 years.
estar (present) > a > ser (infinitive) > ensinar (past participle) O Português está a ser ensinado em França. Portuguese is being taught in France.
As in any continuous tense, the verb estar shows up and is followed by the preposition a, the auxiliary ser (infinitive), and the main verb (past participle). Here’s what it looks like in the Brazilian standard:
estar (present) > ser (present participle) > ensinar (past participle) O Português está sendo ensinado em França. Portuguese is being taught in France.
Ser | Preterite Pretérito perfeito
Besides the auxiliary ser, I will be using the main verb comer – the same I’ve used to exemplify the past tenses above.
Past simple passive
Let’s take a look at the following example:
ser (preterite) > comer (past participle) O almoço foi comido às 13h. Lunch was eaten at 1 pm.
As you can see above, the verb ser comes now in the preterite tense. The main verb, however, remains in the past participle (as in the present simple passive). Here’s the alternative without the auxiliary verb:
O almoço comeu-se às 13h.
In this case, the main verb is conjugated in the third person of the past tense (preterite) and followed by the reflexive pronoun –se.
Past continuous passive
estar (imperfect) > a > ser (infinitive) > comer (past participle) O almoço estava a ser comido todos os dias às 13. Lunch was being eaten every day at 1 pm.
Note that everything looks the same as in the present continuous passive except for the auxiliary estar which is now in the imperfect tense. Here’s what the Brazilian standard version looks like:
estar (imperfect) > ser (present participle) > comer (past participle) O almoço estava sendo comido todos os dias às 13. Lunch was being eaten every day at 1 pm.
Ser | Future Futuro
Finally, the future simple passive. Besides the auxiliary ser, I will be using the main verb aprender (the same one I’ve used to exemplify the future tenses before). Here’s an example:
ser (future) > aprender (past participle) A lição será aprendida. The lesson will be learned.
Notice that the auxiliary verb (ser) is now in the future tense and followed by the past participle of the main verb (aprender). Here’s a more colloquial alternative with the auxiliary verb ir:
ir (present) > ser (infinitive) > aprender (past participle) A lição vai ser aprendida. The lesson will be learned.
We have now the auxiliary ir in the present tense followed by ser in its infinitive form. The main verb, however, comes unaltered in the past participle as before.
Portuguese equivalents of English conditionals
A conditional sentence contains a main clause and aif-clause as in the sentence I would travel around the worldif I were rich.
Let’s take a look at different English conditional sentences and see what the Portuguese equivalents look like.
Subjunctive moodand conditional sentences
You’ll often see the subjunctive mood in conditional sentences. This mood is used in hypothetical and uncertain contexts as well as when someone expresses a desire.
In English, the subjunctive mood has over time been made identical to the indicative mood, thus it’s hardly perceptible nowadays. That’s, however, not the case for Portuguese and other Romance languages, where you still have to keep track of distinct verb forms.
In conditional sentences with a likely outcome, we use the future subjunctive in the if-clause and, in the main one, the future indicative (often in its colloquial version with the auxiliary verb ir).
These kinds of conditional sentences occur, for example, when someone is giving advice.
In our examples, we’ll be using the verb comer (eat). Let’s first look at what the future subjunctive looks like:
Comer | Future subjunctive Futuro do conjuntivo
Here’s an example of a conditional sentence with a likely outcome:
comer (future subjunctive) . . . perder (future indicative) Se comeres menos vais perder peso. If you eat less, you will lose weight.
Second conditional – unrealistic
In conditional sentences denoting wishful thinking, thought experiments, and suppositions, we use the imperfect subjunctive in the if-clause. In the main clause, we use the imperfect indicative.
Here’s what our verb comer looks like in the imperfect subjunctive:
Comer |Imperfect subjunctive Pretérito imperfeito do conjuntivo
And here’s an example:
comer (imperfect subjunctive) . . . perder (imperfect indicative) Se comesses menos de 1000 calorias diárias perdias peso mais rápido. If you ate less than 1000 calories a day you wouldlose weight faster.
As you see, the English verb structure would + infinitive corresponds to the imperfect tense of the indicative mood.
Alternatively, you could use the conditional tense already mentioned above (when discussing the “future in the past”). Here’s our verb in the conditional tense (this tense always take the same endings, regardless of the verb in question. Patterned endings are italicized):
Perder | Conditional Condicional
Note that there is a slight change in the tone when we use the conditional instead of the imperfect tense – the latter is more colloquial and commonplace. Otherwise, there’s no substantial difference:
comer (imperfect, subjunctive) . . . perder (condicional) Se comesses menos de 1000 calorias diárias perderias peso mais rápido. If you ate less than 1000 calories a day you wouldlose weight faster.
Third conditional – lost cause
Finally, there are conditionals expressing situations where something has already happened and it is too late to do something about it.
In this case, the if-clause takes the auxiliary verb ter in the imperfect subjunctive plus the main verb in the past participle. In the main clause, the verb is in the imperfect indicative.
Let’s see what the auxiliary verb ter looks like in the imperfect subjunctive (patterned endings italicized):
Ter |Imperfect subjunctive Pretérito imperfeito do conjuntivo
Let’s take an example:
ter (imperfect, subjunctive) + comer (past participle) . . . estar (imperfect) Se não tivesses comido tanto agora não estavas mal-disposto. If you had not eaten so much, you wouldn’t have felt sick now.
As in the second conditional, you could use the conditional tense in the main clause instead of the imperfect:
ter (imperfect, subjunctive) + comer (past participle) . . . estar (condicional) Se não tivesses comido tanto agora não estarias mal-disposto. If you had not eaten so much, you wouldn’t have felt sick now.
The imperative mood is used to give commands. In Portuguese, the verb form will vary depending on if you adopt a casual or formal tone. Also, the casual has different forms conforming to either affirmative or negative sentences.
Whatever the situation is, you’ll always find the correspondent verb form in the present tense of the verb in question, either in its indicative or subjunctive mood.
To exemplify the nuances of the Portuguese imperative, I will be using the verb beber (drink). (The same principles apply to any other verb).
Beber (present tense)
If the context is informal, we use the third person singular of the indicative mode:
Bebe água. Drink water.
However, if it is a negative sentence, we use the second person singular of the subjunctive mode:
Não bebas água. Don’t drink water.
When the setting is formal, we use the first person singular (or third, as they are the same) of the subjunctive mode:
Beba água. Drink water.
Não beba água. Don’t drink water.
Finally, when talking to a group of people, we use the same verb form regardless of the tone and whether the sentence is in the affirmative form or not, that is, the third person plural of the subjunctive mood: