Past Continuous Tense

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
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 tinha punha
tu eras tinhas punhas
ele/ela/você era tinha punha
nós éramos tínhamos púnhamos
eles/elas/vocês eram tinham punham

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. 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 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 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:
    • Era uma vez um guerreiro... 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 in the past, previously
  • antes before
  • às vezes sometimes
  • de vez em quando once in a while
  • em tempos at times

Perfeito vs. Imperfeito

While the Pretérito Imperfeito Past Continuous refers to a past habit, the Pretérito Perfeito Simple Past 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 that was ongoing. 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
    • 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.

  • 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

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