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Portuguese tenses - what do they mean?

This lesson has created a lot of confusion and doubts about what the Portuguese tenses should mean, not only the "present perfect" (which has been given a wrong name, it's called "pretérito perfeito composto"), but others as well.

So here are some of them regarding non-conditional past tenses and how to compare them with English tenses:

  • Please note that using time adverbs like "sempre", "durante" and others can twist the meanings of the tenses and use constructions that seems not to follow the general idea.


Simple tenses:

Pretérito perfeito (Ex: falei)

Portuguese: Past perfect. -- English: Simple past / present perfect

  • Time referred by the sentence: past
  • Occurrences: Single
  • Done and finished in the time referred by the sentence
  • Idea: time spot/point in past

In Portuguese, the past perfect is not composed with an auxiliary verb, it's a simple verb past,

Thus, it matches the English simple past. And since there is no Portuguese option for "present perfect" (see below), it also matches the English present perfect.
A good idea is to picture a time spot/point in past, focusing the conclusion of the action. It doesn't carry the continuity idea, nor a "time room" idea.

  • I have done my job = I did my job = Eu fiz o meu trabalho

Pretérito imperfeito (Ex: falava)

Portuguese: Imperfect past -- English: past continous / past habit or routine (used to)

  • Time referred by the sentence: past
  • Ocurrences: single or unknown
  • State in time referred by the sentence: unfinished / taking place
  • State in present: finished
  • Idea: time room or continuity in past

The "perfect" word in tenses means that the action is "concluded/done/finished". Then, the imperfect past is used to represent a not finished action in the past. Then it has a "continuous" idea. But it stays completely in te past. The action does not continue to the present.
It's interesting to picture a time room idea in the past. The focus of this tense is not a spot in time, but a time room where the action used to occur/was occurring.

  • Eu tomava banho quando ela ligou - I was taking a shower when she called
  • Eu corria muito naquela rua - I used to run a lot in that street.

Pretérito mais-que-perfeito (Ex: falara - no accent)

Portuguese: More than perfect past -- English: past perfect / simple past

  • Time referred by the sentence: past
  • Occurrences: single
  • State in time refered by the sentence: done and finished before

This tense is rarely used nowadays, but should someone get interested, here it goes.
More than perfect means it is perfect in the past. It's the past in the past.

Imagine a sentence that talks about a past time.
While the past perfect indicates an action done and finished at the time refered by the sentence, the more than perfect past indicates an action done and finished before the time of the sentence.

  • Ontem ele destruiu o carro que comprara antes = yesterday he destroyed the car that he had bought before.


Composite tenses:

(*)Pretérito perfeito composto (Present TER + past participle --- Ex: tenho falado)

(*)This is what Duolingo calls "present perfect", because its structure is the same as English present perfect, but that name doesn't apply in Portuguese.

Portuguese: Composite past perfect - English: present perfect continous

  • Time referred by the sentence: present and past continously
  • Occurences: unknown / many
  • State in present: many finished occurences / occurrences might continue to happen.

Besides the "perfect" word, this tense doesn't look very "perfect". It describes an habit or a routine that has been taking place and still takes place in the present. A recurring action.
A very good way to understand this tense is to add "lately" at the end of a sentence, to remind it's an habit that started somewhere in the past and hasn't been gone yet.

So it's a series of "perfect"/finished actions that have been repeating.

  • Tenho chegado cedo = I have been arriving early (and I still arrive early)
  • Tenho feito muita coisa = I have been doing a lot of things (and I still do them)

If you are interested in knowing more about how would the "present perfect" be translated into portuguese, take a look here: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/12292400

Pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto (Imperfect past TER + past participle --- Ex: tinha falado)

Portuguese: composite more than perfect past - English: past perfect

  • Time referred by the sentence: past
  • Occurrences: single
  • State in time referred by the sentence: done and finished before

Fortunately, this is a perfect match. A single action that had been finished in the past.
It's commonly used when the state in present is undone, the action had been done but somehow it was destroyed or undone.

  • Eu tinha feito tudo ontem - I had done everything yesterday (might suggest those things were undone after that)
  • Eu já tinha feito tudo ontem - I had already done everything yesterday. (true past in past meaning)

That "undone" idea comes from of a common question that appears when one uses the "imperfect past": "Tinha? Não tem mais? - You had/used to have? Don't have anymore?"


Composite tenses using gerund:

Present VIR + gerund (Ex: venho falando)

English: present perfect continous

  • Time referred by the sentence: present and past continuously
  • Occurrences: single continous or many
  • State in time referred by the sentence: started in the past, still being done in the present

Sometimes people use this tense with the same meaning of the Portuguese fake present perfect (pretérito perfeito composto), many occurrences that have been taking place and might still continue.
But this one can also be used for a single action that has been continously done and hasn't been finished yet. A long term action.

  • Ele vem fazendo um bom trabalho - He has been doing a good job (he still does a god job)
  • Eu venho falando isso há muito tempo - I've been saying this for a long time

Imperfect past VIR + gerund (Ex: vinha falando)

English: past perfect continous

  • Time refered by the sentence: past continously
  • Occurrences: single continous or many
  • State in time referred by the sentence: being continously done
  • State in present: finished / not done anymore

And finally (sorry for that big post)...
The tense that matches the English past perfect continous. It represents a single or a group of actions that had been continously done in the past, but ceased being done in the past too. So it doesn't extend to the present.

  • Ele vinha fazendo um bom trabalho - He had been doing a good job (but doesn't anymore)

Go back to the Portuguese Help Index:

January 12, 2014

This discussion is locked.


I'm not a grammar expert, but those "VIR + gerund" are just gerund.

Gerund sentences may have auxiliary verbs: ESTAR, ANDAR, IR, VIR.


Yes....I thought they would have a name, since other composites have their own.


"VIR + gerund" is an example of a "locução verbal" (verbal expression) or "conjugação perifrástica" (periphrastic conjugation). This list comes from a Portuguese source:


Would you make any changes if you were presenting the composite tenses described in the link to students of Brazilian Portuguese? Perhaps you'd replace some instances of "a + infinitive" with the gerund, for example. If you think it's worthwhile, and you can find the time, it would be really helpful if you could write one of your guides on this topic as you've made a great start with "VIR + gerund".


Perhaps they are.....but I can't really say it now.... "conjugação perifrásica" is something I had never heard of before, althoug "locução verbal" is a common thing.

I'm afraid all compound conjugations are "locuções verbais", but I would need to study more to know those quite well.

I'm not sure about "making changes". About what exactly?


Thank you for looking at this. I did mention the kind of changes I thought might be needed. Because that document was written by a Portuguese it is not easy to spot when "a + infinitive" is essential and when it is simply a preference and the gerund could be used instead. I know that Brazilian Portuguese can probably accept both styles but I also know it has a strong preference for the gerund in many situations. For example, one entry in that list is:

  • Acontecimento simultâneo (estar a, ir a + infinitivo) Ex: Ia a sair quando o telefone tocou.

Because the gerund is not given as an option I'm not sure whether "Ia saindo quando o telefone tocou" would be more usual in Brazil or whether that means something subtly different from the version given.

I now recall a discussion where a Brazilian attempted to list all the Portuguese tenses and he singled out a set he called "conjugações perifrásicas". You should be able to spot the list here: https://www.duolingo.com/comment/1240494

That made me think this set was special but I was obviously mistaken because there is an even longer list here:



We would still prefer "ia saindo", but really "estava saindo" sounds more natural.

I think (at first) that there is no "essential a+infinitive". Except, of course, for the "verbs that ask for that preposition", such as:

  • Comecar a + infinitive = Start to + verb
  • Vir a + infinitiv = Come to + verb


And now (I think) I understand:

In that list you gave, I would change the "a + infinitive" for "gerúndios". (Except in "começar a")

  • Ando lendo = I've been reading lately
  • Ia saindo = Was leaving / Was about to leave
  • Vem lendo = Has been reading
  • Vinha lendo = Had been reading

And that's all.


Most of those "perifrásicas" just seem like special cases, compared to modal, prepositional and phrasal verbs.

I'm not sure I would add them to a conjugation topic unless as "very particular cases".

The "gerúndio" ones seem more general though.


Thanks for the great discussion!


another [English] name for "past perfect" is "pluperfect" (which literally means "more than perfect")


Ah, interesting! I've seen that name, but didn't know it was the "past perfect".


I think it comes from the latin Plusquamperfectum (literally Morethanperfect). Plusquamperfekt is also the name of the past perfect in German, which loves to steal grammatical terms from Latin.


Good summary. Thanks!


You are the real MVP.


Aren't there tenses Brazilians tend to drop and replace them with a different tense?


Oh....I think I misread your comment.....


It's common to replace "pretérito perfeito composto" with present "estar + gerund":

  • Tem feito muito frio ultimamente -- Está fazendo muito frio ultimamente = It's been very cold lately
  • Ele tem chegado cedo todos os dias -- Ele está chegando cedo todos os dias = He's been arriving early every day.


No, they are very common, except the "pretérito mais-que-perfeito".

These are the ones they prefer: (at least in Rio)

  • (very common) Pretérito perfeito - single action done in the past
  • (very common) Pretérito imperfeito - with a "used to/not anymore" meaning
  • (common) Pretérito perfeito composto - to speak about habits/routines
  • (common) Pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto - to talk about past in past or things that got undone after done.


Thanks. In Whitlam's book, the naming of the tenses are confusing, as he does not use the Portuguese terms.


thanks a lot danmoller. i've found this very helpful!


excellent post!!!


Thanks a lot, this is exactly what I have been looking for regarding tenses. I have bookmarked this page.


Obrigado, tenho aprendido português de espanhol e isso é muito útil.


I have a book here that is talking about the Perfeito composto. Is this the same as the Pretérito perfeito composto that you described here?


That seems very likely, the only other tense that could be called "perfeito composto" is the subjunctive version which uses the present subjunctive of "ter" ("tenha" etc).

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