Talking About the Past with “Haver”

The Portuguese often use the verb haver paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio to discuss the past, whether it be minutes, hours, days, months, or years.

In these contexts, haver is an impersonal verb, meaning that it doesn’t take a particular subject and is always used in the present tense form of the third-person conjugation: paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio

Normally  means there is or there are. However, when is used before words that express an amount of time, you can think of it more like the word ago (which in English is placed after a time-related phrase) or as standing in for other phrases that indicate a certain amount of time has passed.

The phrase construction is pretty straightforward:

Há + Amount of Time Passed

Comprei esta caneta há uma semana. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I bought this pen a week ago.
Há cinquenta anos, a Internet não existia. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Fifty years ago, the Internet didn't exist.
O avião aterrou há dois minutos. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The airplane landed two minutes ago.
As piscinas fecharam cinco minutos. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio The pools closed five minutes ago.
Há muito que não comia panquecas assim. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I haven't had pancakes like those in a long time.
Estou à espera do cartão seis meses. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio I've been waiting for that card for six months.
Similarly, haver can be used to ask how long something has been going on for. Examples:
quanto tempo estás à espera? paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio How long have you been waiting for?
Está a chover há muito? paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio Has it been raining for long?
Notice that  by itself means nothing – it always requires a quantifier (muito, pouco, algum, etc.) or a specific amount of time (seis minutos, dois meses, vinte anos, etc.).

Usage in European vs. Brazilian Portuguese

There’s another word that Portuguese speakers (of both dialects) use in similar contexts. The word atrás paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio behind usually translates to behind, but in the context of time, it means ago. The usage is a little bit different in each dialect:

  • European Portuguese speakers often use and atrás together in the same construction: + amount of time + atrás. Not only does this sound redundant, it’s also incorrect and you should avoid using this combination of words.
    Eles chegaram uma hora atrás. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio They arrived one hour ago.
    • In everyday speech, Brazilian Portuguese speakers may avoid the redundancy by dropping the altogether and sticking with just atrás. (E.g. Eles chegaram uma hora atrás. paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio They arrived one hour ago. ) This is rarely heard in European Portuguese, though.

Preferably, they may also say Faz uma hora que eles chegaram. Play normal audio It's been an hour since they arrived..

Houve and Havia

The forms houve and havia can also be used to talk about the past. For example:
Houve uma explosão paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio There was an explosion
Havia um parque aqui paused audio playing audio Play slow audio Play normal audio There was a park here, There used to be a park here

Comments

  • Há muito que não comia panquecas assim. Doesn’t make sense to me because there is no numerical quantifier. Há muito tempo que…………. Makes the sentence much easier to understand. Do you just assume that it could be time, or weeks, or years?
    Best regards.

    • Olá, David. We just think of it as a vague, undefined period of time. “Há muito que” is really just an abbreviated form of “Há muito tempo que” – consider them one and the same thing 🙂

    • They both sometimes mean “there was”, but houve is in the pretérito perfeito(simple past) and havia is in the pretérito imperfeito (past continuous). So with verbs in the pretérito imperfeito, you are referring to an event from the past that was ongoing, whereas with the pretérito perfeito, it’s a more isolated event with a clear end point. You can read more here to get a sense of when you would use the imperfeito:
      Past Continuous

  • No Brasil diria “Faz uma hora que chegaram”, enquanto nós dizemos “Chegaram há uma hora”. Uma vez que temos o “há” é redundante dizer “atrás”.

  • Olá Rui e Joel. Adoro PP:) Uma pergunta: posso dizer ‘moro aqui há dois anos’? I.e. using the present tense to talk about the past?

    • Olá, George. Sim, a frase “Moro aqui há dois anos” é totalmente idiomática, podes e deves dizê-la 🙂

  • Why do you use estou a espera (imagine the accent! ) and not estou a esperar. But esta a chover. Is it just a specific colloquial expression or could you use either.

    • Olá, Joanna. “Estou à espera” literally translates to “I am in the wait for”. “Estou a esperar” is what you know as the Portuguese equivalent of the Present Continuous, meaning “I am waiting for”. Both options are grammatically correct, but “Estou à espera” is the most commonly used.

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