Sure, Brazilian culture has a bit of an obsession with the here and now.
But speaking Portuguese also means hearing and telling stories of things that have already occurred.
And to do that, you’ll need to employ some of the various Portuguese past tenses.
And yes, there are quite a few! In this post, we’ll focus on the key past tenses for upper-beginner to upper-intermediate Portuguese learners. These will help you talk about events at past points in time, set the scene of past situations and discuss hypothetical pasts.
How to Study Portuguese Past Tenses
No matter how ambitious your learning plan is, these tenses aren’t to be devoured all in one sitting.
In fact, each tense requires quite a bit of study on its own. A good textbook can help, as well as one-on-one learning classes and exposure to authentic uses in Portuguese podcasts, videos and language exchanges.
One excellent resource you can use to get some authentic Portuguese learning done in a fun way is FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. A Portuguese learning program is currently in development, so stay tuned for an immersive, authentic way to learn Portuguese coming soon!
Or you can pick my favorite option for learning: Pack up and head to a Portuguese-speaking land, and dive in headfirst with chatting and telling stories.
Is This Portuguese Past Tenses Guide Right for You?
For simplicity, we’ll focus in this post on the language as it’s spoken in Minas Gerais / São Paulo / Rio de Janeiro, but the versions of Portuguese spoken elsewhere are quite similar in terms of past tense uses and conjugations.
That said, as usual, you should adjust based on your goal; those targeting the Portuguese of parts of Mozambique, Portugal and far southern Brazilian states might also learn tu conjugations in the past tenses, and you won’t need to know gerunds in the case of Portugal.
This post is meant to provide an overview and to serve as a reference to come back to, and it’s best for those who’ve already learned at least basic vocabulary and present tense indicative.
Some more advanced knowledge is also necessary before tackling some of the more difficult past tenses later in this article. If you’re just venturing into past-tense land for the first time, stick to the preterite and then the imperfect—they’re the most useful and common of these.
Portuguese Past Tenses 101: A Starter Pack for Beginner and Intermediate Learners
The Preterite Indicative: Discuss Limited, Completed Actions
The first past tense that most Portuguese learners tackle is the preterite indicative, which is used to describe simple, closed-off past events.
The regular verb conjugations are as follows. (We’ll include the translation for the first example but the rest will be self-explanatory once you’ve seen it one time.)
Verbs ending in -ar, like falar (to speak):
eu falei — I speak
você/ele/ela falou — you/he/she speak(s)
nós falamos — we speak
vocês/eles/elas falaram — you (plural)/they (male or mixed gender)/they (females) speak
Verbs ending in -er, like beber (to drink):
Verbs ending in -ir, like dormir (to sleep):
Pop quiz: Can you spot which of the above conjugations is exactly the same as its present tense version?
Answer: The nós forms.
So we say, for example, ontem bebemos cachaça (we drank cachaça yesterday) and use the same verbal form to say bebemos cachaça todos os dias (we drink cachaça every day). Context is needed to make clear whether the past or present is intended.
The preterite is the Portuguese tense for talking about single, completed actions or those that were repeated but happened in discreet, completed time units in the speaker’s mind. As usual in Portuguese, the pronouns are omitted unless necessary for emphasis or clarity; the conjugations are otherwise enough to indicate who did what.
Here are some examples with regular verbs:
Falei com ela às 10:00 da manhã. — I spoke with her at 10:00 a.m.
Eles beberam café sem açúcar essa manhã. — They drank coffee without sugar this morning.
Adorei o show. — I loved the concert.
Once you get the hang of the regular verbs, brace yourself, because things are about to get weird.
Conjugating important irregular preterite indicative verbs
The most-used verbs in Portuguese are irregular—worn down and warped by generations of tongues lapping lazily at them—and this is particularly true with preterite conjugations.
These irregular preterite verb conjugations are incredibly important to learn well not just because you need them so often, but also because they’re useful as you move on to study the future and imperfect subjunctive forms, whose irregular conjugations can be derived from your knowledge of the preterite indicative.
Here are a few the most important ones to get you started. You’ll want to memorize all of them!
saber (to know, but in the preterite means to have heard about something, learned or to have found out):
Eu soube que eles estão ficando. — I heard that they’re dating.
dizer (to say, to tell):
Dissemos tudo que pensamos. — We said everything we thought.
pôr (to put)
Ela se pôs a aprender croata. — She got down to studying Croatian.
This verb isn’t actually favored in Brazil in its basic sense of “to put”; colocar is more common for that, instead. But you need to know pôr anyway, as its compounds (compor “to compose,” opor-se “to oppose,” etc.) have the same conjugations.
dar (to give):
Eles me deram uma mochila chique. — They gave me a fancy backpack.
estar (to be [temporary])
Eu já estive cinco vezes no Brasil! — I was in Brazil five times already!
ser (to be [characteristic]) and ir (to go): These two verbs are different in plenty of tenses but share the exact same preterite indicative forms.
Fui ao Brasil em maio. — I went to Brazil in May.
Foi um dia de sacanagem. — It was a day of messing around/naughtiness.
The Imperfect: Set the Scene for Hazy, Unfinished Past Conditions
The Portuguese solution for setting scenes and talking about the way things used to be is the imperfect. It often translates into English with the constructions “was …ing” and “used to…”
The regular conjugations are as follows. Notice that the first- and third-person singular forms are always identical.
Verbs ending in -ar, like falar (to speak):
Verbs ending in -er, like beber (to drink):
Verbs ending in -ir, like dormir (to sleep):
Notice that -er and -ir verbs have identical endings in this tense.
The imperfect indicative is pretty regular, but an important irregular imperfect verb to know is ser (to be):
When to use the imperfect
To start employing these conjugations, it’s helpful to keep in mind how this tense differs from the preterite. Recall that the preterite was for talking about completed events seen as a point in time. The imperfect, on the other hand, is a bit more wishy-washy about when things started and especially when they ended.
I’ve got some funny little characters on my keyboard that get the preterite and imperfect contrasts across even better than my most well-crafted verbiage.
Does it make sense now?
Let’s see that idea in action. We can contrast the following two sentences:
Preterite: Eu pedi conselhos para ela sobre o Rio. — I asked her for advice for Rio.
Imperfect: Eu sempre pedia conselhos para ela sobre o Rio. — I used to always ask her for advice for Rio.
Let’s dig a little more specifically into more uses that trigger the imperfect. The key obvious one’s when we want to talk about how things used to be.
Eu sempre trazia um laptop para trabalhar nas férias. — I used to always bring a laptop to work during vacations.
Ele era vegetariano quando era jovem. — He was a vegetarian when he was young.
If you’re launching into a story, you usually set the scene first, which again calls up the imperfect.
A praia estava vazia e o sol brilhava no mar. — The beach was empty and the sun was shining on the sea.
And you can use the imperfect to set a mini-scene for what was going on when—bang!—a pointed, preteritey thing happened.
Andava de bicicleta quando ela ligou. — I was biking when she called.
In spoken Brazilian Portuguese, the imperfect indicative tense often replaces the conditional mood (usually corresponding to “would + verb” in English). It’s incredibly important for learners to at least be aware of this use to avoid misunderstandings (unfortunately, many books and courses skip over it).
Ontem eu disse que eles tocavam chorinho hoje. — Yesterday I said that they’d play chorinho today.
Se eu estivesse usando um colete lindo, ela dançava comigo. — If I were wearing a pretty vest, she’d dance with me.
It’d mean the same, and be considered “correct,” to write these sentences with the conditional mood. So if you’re being given some sort of Portuguese quiz, you can also write:
Ontem eu disse que eles tocariam chorinho hoje.
Se usasse um colete lindo, ela dançaria comigo.
The Progressive Imperfect: Introduce What Was Going On When Something Else Happened
You can employ the imperfect form of estar (to be) plus the gerund in Brazilian Portuguese to talk about something that was ongoing/continuing in the past. This is particularly common in speech.
Estávamos indo à praia quando começou a chover. — We were going to the beach when it started to rain.
Por quê você estava xavecando a gente na pista do baile? — Why were you flirting with us on the dance floor?
While that’s fine for speech, it’s perhaps more common to write the previous sentences using simply the imperfect (Íamos na praia… xavecava…).
The Perfect Tenses in Spoken Brazilian Portuguese
Brazilians aren’t big users of past participles, but they do occur in the language and need to be learned. The regular past participles are formed by knocking off the -ar, -er or -ir from the end of the verb and replacing them with -ado, -ido or –ido, respectively.
So for three regular verbs, that would make:
falado — spoken
bebido — drunk
dormido — slept
There are also irregular participles. Some of the more common are:
aberto — opened
coberto — covered
dito — said
feito — done
visto — seen
vindo — come
You can use the past participles with the present tense of ter (to have) as an auxiliary to talk about what you “have been doing.” This corresponds to the English perfect continuous and not, as you might expect, the perfect simple for talking about what you “have done.”
So, for example:
Tenho viajado muito no Brasil ultimamente. — I’ve been travelling in Brazil a lot recently.
Ele tem visto muitas séries na Netflix desde que ficou doente. — He’s been watching a lot of shows on Netflix since he became sick.
Note that unlike in English, we don’t use this form for talking about how long something’s been going on; we instead use the present tense and faz plus the time period.
Ele trabalha para mim faz um ano. — He’s been working for me for one year.
If you combine the past participles with the imperfect tense of ter, you can form the pluperfect for talking about pasts before the past. For example:
Eu tinha dito para ele levar um guarda-chuva para São Paulo! Mas não me ouviu, e ficou todo molhado. — I’d told him to take an umbrella to São Paulo! But he didn’t listen to me, and ended up soaked.
Até o ano passado, eles nunca tinham visto o mar. — Until last year, they’d never seen the sea.
Less commonly, in formal writing, you can use haver as the auxiliary verb in the pluperfect.
Eles se queixaram apesar de que não haviam votado nas eleições. — They complained even though they hadn’t voted in the elections.
You can also use ter in the future and conditional tenses as the auxiliary verb followed by the past participle to talk about what will have happened or would’ve happened, respectively.
Vai ver, amanhã teremos acabado todo o trampo!* — You’ll see, tomorrow we’ll have finished all of the work!
*(Trampo—both the word and the obsession—are quintessentially São Paulo. I’ve given this example to show the future tense, but note that in spoken language it’d be more common to use the spoken construction with ir for the future: Vamos ter acabado.)
Teria ido ao Rio se soubesse que você estaria aí. — I would’ve gone to Rio if I’d known that you’d be there.
The Past Subjunctive: Desires and Theories of Way Back When
If you’ve studied the subjunctive mood in the present tense, you already have an idea of what it’s for: hypotheticals, feelings and opinions about actions and imaginary situations. The same concepts also apply to the subjunctive mood as used with past tenses.
You can recognize the imperfect subjunctive forms, as they tend to end with -sse, -ssemos or -ssem. Both the regular and irregular verb conjugations need to be learned, but when you’re starting out it’s enough at first to just be able to recognize them.
Eu queria que você dançasse comigo. — I wanted you to dance with me.
Ganhou o concurso ainda que não estivesse usando sapatos de dança. — He won the contest even though he wasn’t wearing dance shoes.
Embora fosse longe, fomos ver o espetáculo. — Even though it was far, we went to see the show.
The subjunctive forms of ter can also be used with past participles for hypotheticals or opinions about past situations.
Que chato que você tenha passado tanto tempo com ele. — How annoying that you were spending so much time with him.
Eles duvidam que tivéssemos visto a foz do Iguaçu. — They doubt that we saw the Iguaçu waterfall.
Yes, it’s kind of a pain to work out the proper subjunctive in the past tenses—and even Brazilians seem to agree and so the mood is often avoided in speech, especially with certain constructions. So while you’ll definitely still hear the subjunctive past tenses, you’re also likely to hear the indicative replacing them, even when they “should” be used. For instance:
Que chato que você passou tanto tempo com ele. — How annoying that you were spending so much time with him.
This overview was meant to get you started and give you a taste of the past tenses; there’s plenty more to learn and study. These are by no means easy subjects and should definitely be broken down into bite-sized pieces.
You might, for example, spend a study session on just -ar verbs in the preterite and practice writing out sentences that relate to your life and past events with those verbs.
Once you’ve got a firm handle on that, put your notes away and see if you can use those same verbs to tell a teacher or language exchange partner a story, improvising orally, that requires those same verbs. Only when you’ve really mastered that will you be ready to move on to other verbs in the preterite, and beyond.
So yes, there’s plenty of work ahead. But the reward is being able to tell great stories about your past, and to understand the pasts of others. With any luck, doing the work now will give you opportunities for great conversations in the future.
Mose Hayward blogs about packing for Brazil and other travel wisdom.
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