The Pretérito Imperfeito do Indicativo – for simplicity, we’ll refer to it as Imperfeito in this article – is the Portuguese equivalent to the Past Continuous Tense in English grammar. It 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 (past tenses) don’t have, which makes it ideal to describe or narrate past events, as well as to describe past habits.
Fui picado por mosquitos enquanto dormia.I was bitten by mosquitoes while I was sleeping.
Eu comia sopa todos os dias.I used to eat soup every day.
The first sentence mixes the Pretérito Perfeito (“fui picado”) with the Imperfeito (“dormia”). We’ll compare both tenses further below in this article.
The table below shows how to conjugate regular verbs in the Imperfeito:
|-AR verbs||-ER verbs / -IR verbs|
|você / ele / ela||-ava||-ia|
|vocês / eles / elas||-avam||-iam|
And now, here are three examples of irregular verbs in the Imperfeito:
|ser (to be)||ter (to have)||pôr (to put)|
|você / ele / ela||era||tinha||punha|
|vocês / eles / elas||eram||tinham||punham|
When and how to use
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:
- To indicate an action that was taking place while another occurred:
- To describe a habit or actions that happened repeatedly:
- When stating past facts that can be considered permanent or constant:
(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:
- To replace the Present tense when asking for something or placing an order. This is also called Imperfeito de Cortesia (Courtesy Imperfect):
Era um café e um copo de água.I'd like a coffee and a glass of water.
Queria uma tosta mista, por favor.I want a ham and cheese sandwich, please.
- Sometimes, depending on the context, the Present tense might sound a bit rude. In order to sound more polite, you might want to use the Imperfeito.
Queria falar contigo depois.I wanted to talk to you afterwards. …sounds less severe/urgent than Quero falar contigo depois.I want to talk to you afterwards.
- At the start of folk tales and legends, to vaguely situate the story:
(This last situation is mostly seen with the verb ser, just like the example.)
There are also certain adverbs that are commonly used with the Imperfeito: antigamente, antes, às vezes, de vez em quando, em tempos, among others.
Perfeito vs Imperfeito
While the Pretérito Imperfeito refers to a past habit, the Pretérito Perfeito refers to a single event.
Perfeito:Eu deixei a mala no carro.I left the suitcase in the car.
Eu deixava a mala no carro.I used to leave the suitcase in the car.
The Imperfeito expresses a continuous action, one not limited by time. The Perfeito, on the other hand, expresses a momentary, one-time action.
Ele estava a correr quando ouviu um acidente.He was running when he heard an accident.
Running is the action that was continuing to take place in this situation (estava a correr – was running – Imperfeito), while hearing an accident was a momentary, completely finished event (ouviu – heard – Perfeito).