For an English speaker, learning how to use the past tense in Portuguese can be tricky. There are three basic types of Portuguese past tense, all of which have a different set of verb conjugations. If you conjugate a verb into the wrong tense, it can can affect the meaning of the whole sentence, potentially leading to misunderstandings. The best way of avoiding this is to practice with a tutor until the process becomes intuitive.
In this post, we’ll look at each of the three basic Portuguese past tenses—the simple past, the past imperfect, and the pluperfect—and briefly explain in which situations each one is used.
The simple past tense is used to indicate actions that took place in the past. Specifically, it refers to complete or completed actions; for example, “I made a cake,” eu fiz um bolo, or “I went to the shop,” eu fui para a loja. This is the simplest and most common form of Portuguese past tense, and it's probably the best starting point when it comes to learning the past tenses.
The past imperfect tense is used to indicate states of affairs that used to be the case, incomplete actions, actions without a defined start or finish point, and actions that were in progress when another event occurred or intervened. For example, “I used to run every day,” eu corria todos os dias, or “I was running when I saw the accident,” eu estava correndo quando eu vi o acidente. Note that for the latter example, the verb estar (to be) is in the past imperfect, not correr (to run)—the “was” is in the past imperfect, not the “running,” which is in the gerund form correndo, indicating an action in progress. The intervening event (I saw the accident), meanwhile, is in the past perfect, because it describes the complete action. When describing an intervening event in this way, it is normal to use this compound form of the imperfect tense.
The pluperfect tense is used to indicate actions that occurred previously to other actions in the past tense. In English, this is done using the word “had,” for example, “he knew what the message was about, because I had told him the day before.”
In Portuguese, there are two ways of expressing the pluperfect tense. First, each Portuguese verb has its own specific set of conjugations for the pluperfect. For example, for “he knew what the message was about, because I had told him the day before,” we can say ele sabia do que se tratava a mensagem, porque eu lhe contara no dia anterior. Instead of using two words, as we do in English, we use the pluperfect conjugation of “to tell,” contar, and do not need to use “had.”
However, in modern Portuguese, particularly in spoken Portuguese, this way of expressing the pluperfect is becoming increasingly uncommon. Instead, it is more usual to use the compound pluperfect, in which the gerund form of the verb is combined with tinha, the past imperfect of ter, “to have.” Thus, our example sentence, “he knew what the message was about, because I had told him the day before,” becomes ele sabia do que se tratava a mensagem, porque eu tinha contado para ele no dia anterior.
This form of the pluperfect is grammatically less elegant, but it has the advantage of simplicity—instead of remembering a whole new set of conjugations, we just use tinha and the gerund. It’s also grammatically very similar to how the pluperfect is expressed in English, so it’s much more intuitive to do it this way.
Learn More about Portuguese Past Tenses
This post is only a brief introduction to the Portuguese past tense; for example, we haven’t discussed the past subjunctive tense here. Mastering the subject takes a lot of practice, and it can be demanding. In particular, it’s not always obvious when to use the simple past and when to use the imperfect—when you start to learn the past tense, this should be one of the first things you work on. Our tutors will there to help every step of the way. Don’t delay: book a lesson today.