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Progressive Portuguese Tenses: Gerund or Infinitive?

In this post, we look at a common kind of Portuguese tense: progressive tenses. These are relatively straightforward in some ways, but how they are used varies depending on where you are, so you need to make sure you’re learning the right type. Our tutoring services are individualized, so when you learn with our tutors you can be confident that you’ll be learning the right way for your personal needs.

What Is a Progressive Tense?

Progressive tenses, as the name suggests, are tenses describing actions in progress. The in-progress action can take place in the past, present, or future. In English, they can be identified by the verb suffix “-ing” and the verb being preceded by an auxiliary verb, which is always a conjugated form of “to be,” varying depending on the specific tense. To take a very simple example: the verb “to do,” in the present progressive tense, for the first person, is “I am doing.” This is often called a “compound” tense, because it combines two different types of verb form: “am” is the simple present, and “doing” is the gerund.

Progressive Portuguese tenses have much the same linguistic function as their English counterparts. However, there is a slight complication: they are formulated differently in European and Brazilian Portuguese.

European and Brazilian Portuguese

Historically, progressive Portuguese tenses were formulated almost exactly like English ones: a conjugated form of “to be” (estar), followed by the gerund form of the verb indicating the in-progress action. So far, so simple!

However, at some point in the last century or so, European Portuguese departed from this structure, introducing what is known as the gerundive infinitive. Instead of using the normal gerund, the infinitive was used in a specific way to indicate in-progress actions. In Brazil, the traditional formulation was retained. It’s interesting to note that, although European Portuguese is generally considered to be the “purer” of the two, in this respect Brazilian Portuguese is closer to how the language was traditionally spoken.

Below, we look at how the two different formulations work in practice.

Using the Gerund (The Brazilian Way)

The Brazilian formulation of progressive Portuguese tenses is essentially the same as the English: “to be” (estar) + gerund. In Portuguese, the gerund is usually formed by removing the “r” from the end of the infinitive form of the verb and replacing it with -ndo, the Portuguese equivalent of the English verb suffix “-ing.” For example, the first person progressive present for fazer (“to do”) is eu estou fazendo (“I am doing”).

Whether the action is taking place in the past, present, or future is determined by which conjugated form of estar is used. For instance, the first person progressive past tense for fazer is eu estava fazendo, “I was doing.” The future progressive can be constructed two ways: either using the simple future form of estar or the compound simple future. So, “I will be doing” can translate as either eu estarei fazendo or eu vou estar fazendo. The compound form is more common in spoken Brazilian Portuguese; the simple is more usually found in written or formal language, and it is considered more grammatically correct.

Using the Infinitive (The European Way)

The European way of forming progressive Portuguese tenses is less intuitive to a native English speaker than the Brazilian way, but once you’ve learned the Brazilian method it’s relatively simple to learn. The sentences are constructed almost the same way, except that instead of using the gerund, European Portuguese uses a (“to” or “at”), followed by the infinitive. Literally, this translates as something like “I am at to do.”

Let’s look at how the simple examples we used above differ between Brazilian and European Portuguese.

English: I am doing

Brazilian Portuguese: eu estou fazendo

European Portuguese: eu estou a fazer

English: I was doing

Brazilian Portuguese: eu estava fazendo

European Portuguese: eu estava a fazer

English: I will be doing

Brazilian Portuguese: eu estarei fazendo

European Portuguese: eu estarei a fazer

There’s Still More to Learn

There are many subtleties to the use of progressive Portuguese tenses. For example, there are quite strict rules about when it’s appropriate to use the gerund, and how progressive tenses are used depends on where you are in the Portuguese speaking world—and sometimes on what part of an individual country you’re in! Our expert tutors are here to help, so book a lesson today.

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