Pretérito Imperfeito do Indicativo

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
eu -ava -ia
tu -avas -ias
você / ele / ela -ava -ia
nós -ávamos -íamos
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)
eu era tinha punha
tu eras tinhas punhas
você / ele / ela era tinha punha
nós éramos tínhamos púnhamos
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:
Eu comia, bebia e apanhava sol junto ao mar.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.I was in the shower when the phone rang.
  • To describe a habit or actions that happened repeatedly:
Eu corria 10km todos os dias.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.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.If I was there, I would've told the truth.
  • 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:
Era uma vez um guerreiro...There was once a warrior...

(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.

Imperfeito:

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).

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.

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