In this article, I would like to tell you about some friends of mine: Valerie, Aisha and María. Besides being in the title of some of my favorite songs, these names also represent the experiences of my friends in regards to the two most frequently used past tenses in Portuguese: the Pretérito Perfeito (in its simple and composed form) and the Pretérito Imperfeito, both of which are used in the Indicativo mood.


Do you have problems using the proper conjugation rules for these tenses? Are you always confused about when to use forms like eu tinha / eu era / eu fazia and when to use the forms eu tive / eu fui / eu fiz? Do you feel tempted to use the composed form in Portuguese like you may do in your Spanish lessons?


Then let me tell you about how my friends were able to master all of these issues…


Story #1: No way to run from it, the proper conjugation is vital…


Valerie’s native language is English, and Portuguese was her first Latin language. Therefore, she was not used to so many moods, tenses, persons, numbers or voices. However, she did understand that there’s no magic trick to learning them all and that she just needed to dedicate some time to studying the many verbal agreement rules.


First, she reviewed some basic concepts about subject pronouns (first person, second person and third person in both singular and plural). She also learned that the subject pronouns can often be omitted, meaning that in some cases the verb conjugation is even more important because it indicates the subject of a sentence.   


Once she was sure that she understood these concepts clearly, she then needed to study the proper conjugation. Portugese verbs are classified according to their ending: -ar (first conjugation), -er (second conjugation) and -ir/-or (third conjugation).


Let’s have a look at the general rules for regular verbs when conjugated in the Pretérito Perfeito (simples) and the Pretérito Imperfeito. The table below shows the verbs estudar (to study), escrever (to write) and dividir (to share / to divide):


Pretérito Perfeito (simples)

eu estudei
tu estudaste
ele estudou
nós estudámos
vós estudastes
eles estudaram

eu escrevi
tu escreveste
ele escreveu
nós escrevemos
vós escrevestes
eles escreveram

eu dividi
tu dividiste
ele dividiu
nós dividimos
vós dividistes
eles dividiram

você estudou

você escreveu

você dividiu


Pretérito Imperfeito

eu estudava
tu estudavas
ele estudava
nós estudávamos
vós estudáveis
eles estudavam

eu escrevia
tu escrevias
ele escrevia
nós escrevíamos
vós escrevíeis
eles escreviam

eu dividia
tu dividias
ele dividia
nós dividíamos
vós dividíeis
eles dividiam

você estudava

você escrevia

você dividia

Once Valerie learned the proper conjugation for these tenses, she was able (with practice) to conjugate all regular verbs easily. The next step was to study the irregular verbs, the ones that don’t obey the regular rules. Well, being that her native language contains irregular verbs to, she was able to guess that these verbs were in the minority, even though they are used quite frequently in conversational speech. Here are some popular irregular verbs: ser (to be - permanent), estar (to be - temporary), ter (to have) and ir (to go):


Pretérito Perfeito





eu fui
tu foste
ele foi
nós fomos
vós fostes
eles foram

eu estive
tu estiveste
ele esteve
nós estivemos
vós estivestes
eles estiveram

eu tive
tu tiveste
ele teve
nós tivemos
vós tivestes
eles tiveram

eu fui
tu foste
ele foi
nós fomos
vós fostes
eles foram

você foi

você esteve

você teve

você foi


Note: ser and ir are conjugated in the same way as in the Perfeito (simples)... but this is another subject entirely!


Pretérito Imperfeito





eu era
tu eras
ele era
nós éramos
vós éreis
eles eram

eu estava
tu estavas
ele estava
nós estávamos
vós estáveis
eles estavam

eu tinha
tu tinhas
ele tinha
nós tínhamos
vós tínheis
eles tinham

eu ia
tu ias
ele ia
nós íamos
vós íeis
eles iam

você era

você estava

você tinha

você ia


Story #2: When to use Eu tive and when to use Eu tinha


Aisha is a native Arabic speaker and her biggest problem learning Portugese is when to use the Pretérito Perfeito (simples) and when to use the Pretérito Imperfeito.


She told me about her experiences writing texts using the Notebook feature on italki. When she used Eu tive… (Perfeito), someone corrected her with Eu tinha… (Imperfeito). However, when she later used Eu tinha, someone corrected her again, this time with Eu tive….  


So, what do you think was wrong with Aisha’s texts?


Although both forms were grammatically correct, she was most likely using them in the wrong contexts. So, Aisha decided to do more practice in order to help her remember exactly what each one of these tenses express, and when she should use them.


The Pretérito Perfeito (simples) is the most frequently used past tense in Portuguese. We use this tense when we want to describe an action that happened in the past and was completed. Notice that this tense is also the one used to ask about actions done in the past.


A typical situation in which Aisha can use the Perfeito Simples is for talking about her last trip. Let’s see some examples:


  • Eu perguntei: Qual país você visitou nas suas últimas férias? (I asked: Which country did you visit on your last vacation?)
  • Ela disse: Nas minhas últimas férias, visitei o Brasil (She said: During my last vacation, I visited Brazil).
  • Provei comidas diferentes e comprei coisas interessantes (I tasted different foods and I bought interesting things).
  • Ela começou a aprender o português em 1985 (She started to learn Portuguese in 1985).


Each of these examples express non-habitual actions that have been completed. It doesn’t matter whether they took place yesterday or thirty years ago.  


On the other hand, the Pretérito Imperfeit tense is used to talk about an incomplete action, or an action that occurred frequently in the past, but for some reason has ceased.


A good example of when Aisha can use Pretérito Imperfeito is when talking about her childhood. For instance:


  • Nos tempos da escola, eu fazia exercícios de matemática todos os dias (On school days, I used to do math exercises everyday).


In fact, we don’t even need to go back that far into the past. She can, for example, talk about the Portuguese course she took last summer:


  • No meu curso de Português, eu lia muitos livros sobre gramática (In my Portuguese course, I used to read a lot of grammar books).


These examples express the idea of a past habit that was interrupted; in the first case, when she finished school and in the second case, when she finished the Portuguese course.

She can also use the Imperfeito to talk about non-habitual actions that were interrupted. Let’s look at an example where we talk about an action that happened in the past, but was not completely finished:


  • Ontem, ela estudava a lição quando foi interrompida (Yesterday, she was studying the lesson when she was interrupted).


There is one more situation where we need to use the Imperfeito. This is when we want to describe people and things in the past. Please note that this does not relate to actions, but descriptions:


  • Na festa de ontem, os convidados usavam roupas bonitas. (The guests were wearing pretty clothes at the party last night).
  • Os bolos que a minha avó fazia eram muito gostosos (The cakes that my grandmother used to make were so delicious).


Once Aisha understood that the Pretérito Perfeito and the Pretérito Imperfeito tell us different things about the actions that they describe, she began to notice that they actually looked awkward when placed in the wrong context. This is why people corrected her texts.


As one last example, let’s compare these two sentences that use the verbs estudar (to study) and fazer (to do). One sentence is in the Imperfeito and another one is in the Perfeito (simples):


  1. Ela estudava as lições e fazia os exercícios.
  2. Ela estudou as lições e fez os exercícios.


Sentence #1 tells us that she used to study the lessons and do the exercises at some point in the past. It gives us the idea that she habitually studied for some amount of time and then, for some reason, she stopped.


Sentence #2 tells us that she studied the lessons and did the exercises at some point in the past and completed them. It gives us the idea that she performed one set of tasks only one time.


We can now see how conflicting sentence #1 could be if the context told us that this action took place only once at a specific event or on a specific day.


Story #3: A reminder to those who also speak Spanish…


For María, who speaks Spanish, the biggest problem she faces when learning Portugese is the similarities between these two tenses. Others who learn Spanish before Portuguese can be faced with this problem too. Therefore, they will need to be more careful when using the Pretérito Perfeito (Composto), just like María will have to.


In Portuguese, this tense is formed by the presence of the verbs ter or haver as auxiliaries, followed by the participle form of the verb that we want to use. The Pretérito Perfeito (Composto) tense is used to describe something that began in the past and may extend up until the present. A good example of when María can use the Perfeito Composto is when she tells us about what she has been doing to improve her Portuguese skills. For example:


  • Tenho estudado muito para os exames (I have studied extensively for the exams).


She needs to be very careful here being that Spanish has a very similar tense that, nevertheless, expresses something different.


In Spanish, this single tense describes an action that was performed in the recent past, or something that happened in the past but is linked to the present. However, in Portuguese, these two ideas are represented by two different tenses.


Something that simply happened in the recent past (or even in the remote past)  should be in the Pretérito Perfeito simple form (simples) in Portuguese.


On the other hand, something that happened in the past, but is also linked to the present should be in the Pretérito Perfeito composed form (composto).


So, when María wants to say “Yesterday, I bought a book,” what does she need to say in Portuguese?


Exactly! She needs to say Ontem, comprei um livro or Eu comprei um livro ontem (the Perfeito Simples).


Remember, it doesn’t matter whether she bought the book fifty years ago or whether she bought it just once, she will use the same tense: Eu comprei um livro em 1965 (I bought a book in 1965).


While she may be tempted to use the composed form to express this idea, she needs to remember that if she does so, she will actually express a different idea entirely. And, in a majority of cases, she will even say a sentence that makes no sense, for example:


Incorrect: Ontem, tenho comprado um livro (remember, this example really doesn’t fit).


However, if she wanted to say “Recently, I have bought many books,” she would be correct if she said in this case Tenho comprado muitos livros ultimamente (the Perfeito Composto).


Your story: Study and practice…


I hope that these stories can help you with this subject. Remember, there are even more variables to consider, such as exceptions, context and different uses in different regions (Portugal vs. Brazil or Southern Brazil vs. Northern Brazil).


Furthermore, even after you have studied this topic, it will still take a lot of practice to become sensitive enough to instantly notice when a certain structure does not fit a certain context. Similarly, it will take time to be able to understand which form to use when both make sense, but express different ideas.


I wish you the best of luck in your Portuguese learning journey and please share your experiences in the comments!


Image Sources


Hero Image by Ramon Llorensi (CC BY 2.0)