LearningPortuguese

Preterite Indicative

Now we will take a look into the past. You might think that the past tense is called ‘the past tense’ – but I’m afraid you would be wrong. For some reason, grammarians (that’s what you call the nutters who make this stuff up) have decided to call it ‘the preterite’ or ‘preterite indicative’, or if they're feeling kind, just ‘the simple past’.

By the way, Americans sometimes spell this as ‘preterit’ without a final ‘e’ – this American spelling reflects the correct pronunciation: it should be pronounced ‘pret-er-rit’ not ‘pret-er-right’. The word preterite is derived from the Latin ‘praeteritum’ meaning ‘past’ (grammarians just luuurve Latin).

The concept is very similar to using the present tense – you just have to learn the new conjugations. There are actually several ways to refer to something that happened in the past, each with varying shades of meaning, and the preterite represents just one of these ways. To give you an example of what I mean, take a look at the following sentences:

I walked home.

I was walking home.

I have walked home.

I had walked home.

I would have walked home.

Each of these sentences describes something involving the past, but they carry different shades of meaning by employing different tenses. The preterite is the simplest of these, that is, the first example above ‘I walked home’. It refers to someone or something directly having done something (he ran, they ate, we went, etc.). For regular verbs, this means using a different set of endings on the stem of the infinitive. The following examples of regular Portuguese verbs illustrate the full conjugation of the preterite tense.

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

trabalhei

trabalhámos (the acute á sounds a little more open than its present indicative equivalent)

trabalhaste

trabalhastes

trabalhou

trabalharam

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

pensei

pensámos

pensaste

pensastes

pensou

pensaram

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

comi

comemos (note: 1st person plural is exactly the same as in the present indicative)

comeste

comestes

comeu

comeram

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

escrevi

escrevemos

escreveste

escrevestes

escreveu

escreveram

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

garanti

garantimos (again, no change from the present indicative)

garantiste

garantistes

garantiu

garantiram

Preterite indicative tense of the third conjugation regular verb: assistir (to attend)

assisti

assistimos

assististe

assististes

assistiu

assistiram

Here are some examples of irregular preterites:

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

estive

estivemos

estiveste

estivestes

esteve

estiveram

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

fui

fomos

foste

fostes

foi

foram

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

fui

fomos

foste

fostes

foi

foram

No, it's not a misprint. The preterite forms of the verbs ‘ser’ and ‘ir’ are identical. So to say ‘I was’ (‘eu fui’), is exactly the same as to say ‘I went’ (‘eu fui’). Strange, but true.

Interestingly, the preterite is used even for negative statements in Portuguese – we don’t do this in English. For example, to put ‘I thought’ into the negative, we would say ‘I did not think’. Because we use ‘did’ (an auxiliary verb), we have to change ‘thought’ to ‘think’ (the infinitive). Portuguese is a lot simpler. ‘I did not think’ would be translated ‘não pensei’ (lit. ‘not I thought’), which is much more logical, and does not require you to change the verb form or use any auxiliary verbs. That’s why you sometimes hear Portuguese people who are learning English say things like ‘I didn’t thought’.

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