In this learning note, we’ll discuss the pretérito imperfeito do indicativo, which is the Portuguese equivalent to the past continuous tense in English grammar. For simplicity, we’ll refer to it as the Imperfeito 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 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. 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 Simple Past (fui picado) with the Imperfeito 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|
Three examples of irregular verbs in the Imperfeito:
|ser (to be)||ter (to have)||pôr (to put)|
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:
- 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:
- In place of the conditional, to state a consequence of an action or event that didn’t or couldn’t happen:
- 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 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'd like a ham and cheese sandwich, please.
- Queria falar contigo depois. I wanted to talk to you afterwards. – This 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:
Adverbs used with the Imperfeito
You may notice that there are certain adverbs that are commonly used with the Imperfeito, such as:
- antigamente in the past, previously
- antes before
- às vezes sometimes
- de vez em quando once in a while
- em tempos at times
Perfeito vs. Imperfeito
- 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 that was ongoing. The Perfeito, on the other hand, expresses a momentary, one-time action.