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The Two Portuguese Past Tenses Most likely to Give You a Headache… And What to Do About It

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If you’re talking about your life, you will invariably use the Portuguese past tenses.

You’ll talk about your childhood and also what you had for dinner last night. In English, it’s pretty straightforward: just use a single verb and you’re done with it.

Not so in Portuguese.

And that’s because we have more than two Portuguese tenses for the past, and none of them corresponds 100% to their English counterparts.

We have the simple past tense. We use it when we talk about finished past actions. Like, I woke up at 7 PM, made myself a sandwich and ate it.

We have the imperfect past tense, which is used to talk about different kinds of past actions — things we used to do or would do every day, every weekend… In addition to other situations.

Those two are most likely to give you a headache. There is no seeming logic to their usage. You use them, find out you were wrong, and slap yourself in the face.

You don’t have to go, “oh dammit” anymore. In this short article, you will learn how to use them and in what situation you should use them.

(And in time: we also have past subjunctive, future of the past, conditionals… Keep visiting our Portuguese grammar section for more on that if you want to speak fluently without having to translate everything in your head — and avoid the frustration)

The Simple Past in Portuguese, or the Preterite

I use the term simple past because it makes it easier for us to remember. If you flip through the pages of a Portuguese grammar book, what you’re going to find is the preterite.

Let’s leave the preterite in the past, shall we?

The simple past is used like the simple past in English — you’re describing a finished past action. I ate, I went home, I slept.

One of the things you can keep in mind is that these finished past actions usually have a time marker attached to them. Things like last night, yesterday, last year, last week, at 3 o’clock this morning.

But you have to bear in mind that those markers may not be explicit on the page or in the conversation.

  • Eu comi bolo de chocolate no final de semana. I had chocolate cake on the weekend.
  • escrevi cinco livros. Estou escrevendo o sexto. I already wrote five books. I’ve been writing the sixth one.
  • Mas eu não fui caminhar semana passada. Estive muito doente esses dias. I didn’t go for a walk last week. I was very sick these days.

It’s simple enough. So, let’s complicate a little bit.

Say one of my students tell me that they sold cars for a living. They don’t sell it anymore, so it’s a finished past action, right?

More or less. If my student sold cars for a living, that means they probably did that for some time in the past with some regularity.

In this case, what my student needs is the imperfect past.

The Imperfect Past Tense in Portuguese

First off, something English speakers — and Portuguese speakers — sometimes get wrong is the meaning of “perfect” in grammatical contexts.

Right now, you might say this word when you want to praise somebody for something that they’ve done, or to tell that you are satisfied with something you bought, ordered, or received.

But “perfect” comes from Latin, and it’s the combination of the words for “complete” (the suffix “per”) and “done” (facere, factus, “-fect”).

So, when you talk about the perfect past tense, it’s something that was done to completion.

Likewise, when you use the imperfect past tense in Portuguese, you’re talking about something that was not completely done or finished in the context you’re talking about.

I include this roundabout explanation here on purpose. You need to give your mind fodder to think properly about this concept.

So, what’s the perfect past tense in Portuguese used for?

In three principal situations.

  • when you’re talking about repetitive actions that happened in the past.
  • when you’re describing something that was a habit — something you express in English with would or used to.
  • when you’re describing two or more simultaneous actions that happened in the past.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Repetitive Actions

  • Sempre fechava a porta depois de entrar na sala de aula. Alguns alunos não faziam isso. I always closed the door after entering the classroom. Some students didn’t.
  • Comprava doces na loja dele sempre que podia. I bought candies from his shop whenever I could.

You see here that these actions were repetitive — meaning they repeated a lot — but also they were a habit.

This repetition tends to mingle with the habit thing we’re going to talk about. And, between me and you, there is no reason for us to distinguish them all the time.

Habits

  • Todos os dias, eu me levantava às 4:30 da manhã e saía para correr um pouco. Everyday, I would wake up at 4:30 AM and would go out for a jog.
  • Quando era criança, jogava futebol todos os dias. When I was a child, I played football every day.
  • Eu digitava mais rápido quando jovem. I used to be a faster typist when I was young.

Simultaneous Actions

Here, you’ll find some markers of simultaneous actions, such as “enquanto, durante, ao mesmo tempo que”. But they don’t need to be necessarily in the sentence. You’ll see that in the second example.

  • A mãe cozinhava o feijão enquanto as crianças brincavam na sala. The mom cooked the beans while the children played in the room.
  • O cachorro latia, o gato miava e as crianças gritavam. Era uma barulheira só. The dog barked, the cat meowed, and the children yelled. That was such a noise.

And a Special Case — Comparisons

Whenever you’re comparing the past with the present — that is, two related situations that are now different — you need to use the imperfect past tense.

Examples:

  • Quando eu era criança, gostava de jogar bola. Hoje em dia, não tenho tempo nem disposição para isso. When I was a child, I liked playing soccer. Nowadays, I don’t have time nor willingness to do it.
  • Antes, chovia quase todos os dias. Agora quase não chove mais. Before, it rained almost every day. Now, it almost doesn’t rain anymore.
  • O Francisco era um homem muito feliz. Hoje, ele vive triste e deprimido. Francisco was a very happy man. Now, is always sad and depressed.

And again, the two situations in comparison don’t need to be clearly expressed. If it’s implied in the conversation, you can surely use the imperfect past tense.

Wrapping Up

So, you now see that it’s not complicated to know when to use the past tense. I didn’t include any conjugations here. If you’re reading this, there is a pretty big chance that you already know how to conjugate your verbs.

However, if you need more help with the verbs, I do advise you to download your free guide to the Portuguese verb tenses. There are in-depth explanations and more examples in there.

And if you have any questions, you can always send us a message 🙂 most of the time, these articles have been inspired by you, faithful reader-learner.

Thank you.