Past Continuous Tense

In this learning note, we’ll discuss the pretérito imperfeito do indicativo Play normal audio , which is the Portuguese equivalent to the past continuous tense in English grammar (a.k.a. the past progressive). For simplicity, we’ll refer to it as the Imperfeito paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Imperfect.
This tense is used to describe something that took place in the past that was ongoing or did not have a clear endpoint. It imparts this idea of continuity that the other pretéritos paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio past tenses don’t have, which makes it ideal to narrate past events, as well as to describe past habits. 
Fui picado por mosquitos enquanto dormia. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I was bitten by mosquitoes while I was sleeping.
Eu comia sopa todos os dias. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I used to eat soup every day.
The first sentence mixes the Pretérito Perfeito paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Simple Past (fui picado) with the Imperfeito paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Imperfect (dormia). We’ll compare both tenses further below in this article.

Conjugating Verbs in the Imperfeito

Conjugating regular verbs in the Imperfeito:

-ar verb ending -er/-ir verb ending
eu -ava -ia
tu -avas -ias
ele/ela/você -ava -ia
nós -ávamos -íamos
eles/elas/vocês -avam -iam

Three examples of irregular verbs in the Imperfeito:

ser (to be) ter (to have) pôr (to put)
eu era Play normal audio tinha paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio punha Play normal audio
tu eras Play normal audio tinhas Play normal audio punhas Play normal audio
ele/ela/você era Play normal audio tinha paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio punha Play normal audio
nós éramos Play normal audio tínhamos Play normal audio púnhamos Play normal audio
eles/elas/vocês eram Play normal audio tinham Play normal audio punham Play normal audio

When and how to use the Imperfeito

Let’s look at an example for each of the different contexts in which you can use the Imperfeito:

  • When, with our thoughts, we travel to the past and describe what was then the present:
    • Eu comia, bebia e apanhava sol junto ao mar. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I was eating, drinking, and sunbathing by the sea.
  • To indicate an action that was taking place while another occurred:
    • Estava no duche quando o telefone tocou. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I was in the shower when the phone rang.
  • To describe a habit or actions that happened repeatedly:
    • Eu corria 10km todos os dias. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I used to run 10km every day.
  • When stating past facts that can be considered permanent or constant:
    • A casa do João tinha vista para o mar. Play normal audio João's house had a view of the sea. – It may not be João’s house anymore, but we can assume that it continually had a view of the sea, not just on one occasion.
  • In place of the conditional, to state a consequence of an action or event that didn’t or couldn’t happen:
    • Se lá estivesse, tinha contado a verdade. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio If I was there, I would have told the truth.
  • Sometimes, depending on the context, the present tense might sound a bit rude. In order to sound more polite when asking for something or placing an order, you might want to use the imperfeito. In these situations, it’s sometimes referred to as the Imperfeito de Cortesia paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Courtesy Imperfect:
    • Era um café e um copo de água. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I'd like a coffee and a glass of water.
    • Queria uma tosta mista, por favor. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I'd like a ham and cheese sandwich, please.
    • Queria falar contigo depois. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I wanted to talk to you afterwards.This sounds less severe/urgent than Quero falar contigo depois. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I want to talk to you afterwards.
  • At the start of folk tales and legends, to vaguely situate the story:
    • Era uma vez um guerreiro... paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio There was once a warrior... – This is mostly seen with the verb ser, just like the example.

Adverbs used with the Imperfeito

You may notice that there are certain adverbs that are commonly used with the Imperfeito, such as:

  • antigamente paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio in the past, previously
  • antes paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio before
  • às vezes paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio sometimes
  • de vez em quando paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio once in a while
  • em tempos paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio at times

Perfeito vs. Imperfeito

While the Pretérito Imperfeito paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Past Continuous refers to a past habit, the Pretérito Perfeito paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Simple Past refers to a single event.

  • Perfeito: Eu deixei a mala no carro. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I left the suitcase in the car.
  • Imperfeito: Eu deixava a mala no carro. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I used to leave the suitcase in the car.

The Imperfeito expresses a past continuous action, one that was ongoing. The Perfeito, on the other hand, expresses a momentary, one-time action.

  • Ele estava a correr quando ouviu um acidente. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio He was running when he heard an accident.
    • Running is the action that was continuing to take place in this situation: estava a correr paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio was running - Imperfeito
    • Hearing an accident was a momentary, completely finished event: ouviu paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio heard - Perfeito

Comments

  • I was a bit confused by the “vós” conjugation being shown in this lesson. I don’t remember having seen it before, not in the Verbs section or in the other lessons!

    • Well, vós is the real original second-person plural pronoun in Portuguese, but it’s fallen somewhat out of use over time and is mostly seen as archaic today. Nowadays, the general preference is to replace vós with vocês. Vocês actually shares the same conjugations as the third-person plural pronouns eles and elas (they), instead of the old second-person plural conjugations.

      The conjugations for vós are still taught in Portuguese schools from a very young age. In Practice Portuguese, they’re not covered because for the vast majority of our members, they won’t be of use and learning Portuguese is already difficult enough as it is. So, looks like there was a slip up in this Learning Note 🙂 Thanks for noticing it.

  • Olá. I’m confused by the example for the Imperfeito de Cortesia: “Era um café e um copo de água.” Why do we use the verb “ser” when saying (politely) what we would like? I would have thought “Queria um café e um copo de água” would be the thing to say here. What am I missing? Obrigado.

    • And you would be right to think so! You can use “Queria” as well in these situations, both are very common.

      Thanks for pointing that out, though, I’ll add it to the Learning Note just in case.

      • Olá. I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear. My confusion was because I didn’t realize that “Era” could be used to make a request, such as when ordering in a restaurant. (That’s why I have used “Queria” up to now.) But I’m very happy to learn this use of “Era”! Obrigado.

  • Many english childrens stories start with Once upon a time……….. Could this be translated as Era uma vez um lobo mau etc ?

  • Hi, just want to thank you for making this past tense a lot clearer to me. Another confusing area is, when to use daquele instead of aquele, disto instead of isto, deste instead of este etc. My brain is beginning to scramble

    • It can have those meanings. For example, when describing repeated past actions (habitual past):
      – Ela praticava todos os dias. (She would practice every day)
      – Ele conseguia bons resultados naqueles exames. (He could get good results in those exams)

      The imperfect can also be sometimes used as an alternative to the conditional, and also take on those same meanings then:
      True conditional: Eu não faria isso! (I would not do that!)
      Imperfect used as a conditional form: Eu não fazia isso! (I would not do that!)

  • ERA um café, QUERIA uma tosta, sound like the Conditional to me; I am well aware of the Imperfect and have taught it in French for years but I am missing something here ( even though asked about above by FFP088 and replied to by Eduardo), could someone do a literal breakdown for me, please? My brain seems to like that, lol.
    Pat

    • Olá, Pat. Those are both imperfect conjugations. The conditional has a different structure, derived directly from the infinitive forms of verbs (plus the respective ending for each person). So, for the verb ser, the first-person singular conditional would be seria. For the verb querer, it would be quereria. It’s surprisingly linear (with only 3 exceptions!), considering how crazy Portuguese verbs can be 🙂 Here’s a Learning Note that explains this in detail: The Conditional

  • Is it less polite to say, “Eu quereria um copo de água” compared to “Eu queria um copo de água”?

    Are the conditional and the imperfect past used interchangeably in this type of usage?

    • For polite requests, the imperfect and the conditional aren’t interchangeable with the verb querer. Each sentence means something different and only the imperfect is suitable for requests:
      – “Eu quereria um copo de água” = “I would want a glass of water” (conditional – not used like this)
      – “Eu queria um copo de água” = “I would like/I want a glass of water” (imperfect – appropriate)

      On the other hand, with the verb ‘gostar’, the conditional is absolutely fine for polite requests and the imperfect is also acceptable:
      – “Eu gostaria de (pedir) um copo de água” = “I would like (to ask for) a glass of water (conditional)
      – “Eu gostava de (pedir) um copo de água” = “I would like (to ask for) a glass of water” (imperfect)

      So, this is not a type of usage where the conditional and the imperfect overlap much; it depends on the verb. What usually happens (in other uses) is that the imperfect can stand in for the conditional, but not the other way around.
      – “I wouldn’t know what to do in your place!” = “Eu não saberia o que fazer no teu lugar” (true conditional) = “Eu não sabia o que fazer no teu lugar” (imperfect used as a conditional tense)
      – “She used to talk about school a lot” = “Ela falava muito sobre a escola” (true imperfect) =/= “Ela falaria muito sobre a escola” (conditional -> not interchangeable here!)

  • Hi,
    I was wondering if you could explain this example of using Imperfeito tense:

    “Normalmente, eram 6h de amanhã quando me levantava e ia à casa de banho para fazer a minha rotina de higiene mantinal”.

    I wonder why we use eram and not foi. When I think of this sentence in English I’d say:
    Do we use imperfect tense because there is a word normalmente or maybe we use this tense because it refers to:
    “Normally, I used to wake up at 6 in the morning “. thank you:)

    • The imperfeito is used for past actions that were ongoing and the pretérito is used for a past completed/one-time action. So because it’s something that normally happened, it was ongoing in the past.

      In English we might use the same word in both situations. For example: “I woke up at 6” without any other context could mean just a one time thing or it could mean that you woke up at 6 regularly in the past. To clarify, we might say something like “I would wake up at 6 every morning back then” (using the conditional) or “I used to wake up at 6 when I was a kid” or “I woke up at 6 every day when I was kid” and all of those would refer to an ongoing past event.

      In Portuguese, this is when the imperfect is used. Using foi / the pretérito would imply that in only one specific instance you woke up at 6. Does that help?

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  • Re the «vós»… Nooo! Don’t stop mentioning it! True, it is not much used in Lisbon Portuguese, but Portugal is not just Lisbon, and the Portuguese language is certainly not just Lisbon (I’m from Lisbon, by the way). Travelling around Portugal you’ll hear it, for sure. People might try not to use it when they hear your (mine) Lisbon accent, so as to conform to a standard Portuguese out of politeness, but you’ll hear it being spoken all the time, especially (but not exclusively) in the North of Portugal. Also in other Portuguese-speaking countries. And, indeed, in remote parts of Brazil. So, it is spoken. I find it best to keep it in lessons here and there, just so that learners are aware of it when they encounter it.

    • Thanks, Luís! Sorry if we’re too grounded on a Lisbon/southern Portuguese perspective, that’s not the intention. We mainly want to acknowledge that, globally speaking, the use of vós is more and more restricted geographically, and the burden of learning Portuguese verbs can be reduced by focusing, at least initially, on what people truly are expected to be able to use anywhere they go. For this reason, vós is currently not actively covered in PP materials, but it does get some occasional features, such as in the Passo a Passo documentary, where it was one of the major linguistic topics: Passo a Passo (O Caminho de Santiago). Since the website content expands and adapts literally every day, this is always something that can be reassessed in the future 🙂

  • olá! Estou confusada pelo exemplo em cima: “Se lá estivesse, tinha contado a verdade.”
    If I was there, I would have told the truth.

    Pensei que o imperfeito seria “Se lá estivesse, contava a verdade.” E achava que “Tinha contado” era um outro tipo de conjugação? (i.e. one of the composite past tenses with imperfeito of Ter followed by the past participle of Contar)?

    Obrigada em avanço,
    Anne Curtis

    • Olá, Anne! Se estás confusa*, vou tentar ajudar 🙂 Tal como dizes, “tinha contado” corresponde a um tempo composto (pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto do indicativo). Mas nesse exemplo, o foco não está na estrutura verbal completa; só está a ser analisado, isoladamente, o verbo auxiliar ter. Relativamente ao verbo ter, o exemplo apenas tenta demonstrar como o imperfeito muitas vezes é usado no sentido do condicional, dado que na verdade, “tinha (contado)” deve ser interpretado como “teria (contado)”.

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