LearningPortuguese

Imperfect Indicative

Not too difficult eh? All right then, let's start to make things a little more complicated. Another tense that has to do with the past is the ‘imperfect indicative’. Basically, this refers to an action that took place in the past, but was ongoing for a period of time and where the time of completion of the action is not specified. It is precisely because of this lack of a specified time that the tense is called ‘imperfect’.

We don't really have a direct equivalent in English - we use the preterite, past continuous, or conditional instead (more on those later). Here are some English equivalents of the imperfect indicative:

I was working here in those days (past continuous).

I worked here in those days (preterite).

In those days, I would work here then go home (conditional).

In English, it is typically the context that places the use of the verb in the imperfect – in the above examples, the use of ‘in those days’ indicates an ongoing action with no specific start or end. Without that context, we would not know that it was imperfect (relating to an ongoing past action without a specified completion event). In Portuguese, the verb ending directly implies the imperfect aspect, so you don’t need the extra contextual information to know that the timing of the action the verb relates to is not specific.

This tense is also used when you want to refer to something that used to happen. You can either use the appropriate conjugation of the verb in the imperfect indicative tense directly, or use the appropriate conjugation of the verb ‘costumar’ in the imperfect, followed by the infinitive of the verb you are referring to (so ‘Eu costumava trabalhar aqui’ and ‘Eu trabalhava aqui’ could both be used to mean ‘I used to work here’).

Imperfect indicative tense of the first conjugation regular verb: trabalhar (to work)

trabalhava

trabalhávamos

trabalhavas

trabalháveis

trabalhava

trabalhavam

Imperfect indicative tense of the first conjugation regular verb: pensar (to think)

pensava

pensávamos

pensavas

pensáveis

pensava

pensavam

Imperfect indicative tense of the second conjugation regular verb: comer (to eat)

comia

comíamos

comias

comíeis

comia

comiam

Imperfect indicative tense of the second conjugation regular verb: escrever (to write).

escrevia

escrevíamos

escrevias

escrevíeis

escrevia

escreviam

Imperfect indicative tense of the third conjugation regular verb: garantir (to guarantee).

garantia

garantíamos

garantias

garantíeis

garantia

garantiam

Imperfect indicative tense of the third conjugation regular verb: assistir (to attend; to watch)

assistia

assistíamos

assistias

assistíeis

assistia

assistiam

Irregular imperfect indicatives…

Imperfect indicative tense of the irregular first conjugation verb: estar (to be)

estava

estávamos

estavas

estáveis

estava

estavam

Imperfect indicative tense of the irregular second conjugation verb: ser (to be)

era

éramos

eras

éreis

era

eram

Imperfect indicative tense of the irregular third conjugation verb: ir (to go)

ia

íamos

ias

íeis

ia

iam

So when you are talking about something that extended over an indefinite period of time – as opposed to an event or something that was accomplished – you use the imperfect indicative rather than the preterite.

Foi or Era?

Note the difference between the words ‘foi’ (preterite) and ‘era’ (imperfect indicative) – and their equivalents for the other ‘persons’ of their respective tenses. This is often the source of confusion, because both words are usually translated as ‘was’ in English, and both come from the verb ‘ser’. The rule is exactly the same as for the other verbs though – ‘foi’ is used for an event or accomplished action, and ‘era’ relates to an action or process which occurred over an indefinite period of time in the past. So…

A exposição foi boa

The exhibition was good (referring to a known time period)

Era um homem bom

He was a good man (over an unspecified period of time)

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