Portuguese past tense.

I need help on when you use the normal past, the imperfect, and subjunctive. I have a large grasp on the easier concepts in the past tense, such as how to conjugate and when to use it, but whenever I think that I have a handle on the imperfect and subjunctive past tenses there are always new sentences phrased in ways that go against the rule established in my mind.

I know that imperfect is a broader scale, a less defined time scale and is used to talk about things in which you are not sure about what time those things happened. Including speaking about childhood

I know that a lot of the past subjunctive tense is based off of "had done" "had been."

Also, I need help conquering the subjective past.

July 16, 2018


I'm not a native Portuguese speaker but my mother tongue is French and our conjugations work mostly in the same way so I'm going to try and explain as best as I can:

The subjunctive is pretty "rigid", it must always be used in some contexts and never in others. There are very few sentences where you can optionally use the subjunctive or not (without changing anything else in the sentence). You need to learn what calls for the subjunctive and remember to substitute the indicative for the subjunctive in these situations. It's a bit dumb but frankly there's no way around it. For instance if you say "eu quero que ele me ama" it's incorrect because you're supposed to use the subjunctive "que ele me ame" instead, however I'm sure that any Portuguese speaker will understand what you mean even though it'll sound weird to them. It's not really here to disambiguate anything or add meaning on its own, it's mostly just a grammatical quirk of romance languages.

The perfect/imperfect past is a bit more nuanced, it's not rare to encounter a situation where both can be used without changing anything else in the sentence and still end up with correct grammar. It does however change the meaning of the sentence, sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically. If you want to translate "I wanted to help him" for instance you could say "eu quis ajudá-lo" or "eu queria ajudá-lo" and, as far as I can tell, the meaning is rather similar (at least it would be in French) and you could probably use them interchangeably in most contexts.

Meanwhile "I learned Portuguese" can either be translated by "aprendi português" or "eu aprendia português" but here the meaning is significantly different, the perfect tense "aprendi" means that you're done learning (and that you've stopped since then, either because you succeeded or because you gave up) while the imperfect just sets the sentence in the past but it doesn't really say anything about whether you've stopped learning or not.

It's hard and frustrating to figure out these concepts that don't match your native language. I remember that the present perfect was one huge pain point during my learning of English, and I'm sure I still get it wrong from time to time. Practice makes perfect, your brain is a pattern recognition machine first and foremost, eventually it'll start picking up the patterns and that'll come more and more naturally to you. In the meanwhile you can use tricks to try and figure out which tense to use but in my experience they're not always entirely foolproof and sometimes can be pretty hard to apply to every situation. Just accept that you'll get it wrong from times to times and don't let it stop you, that's how you learn.

July 16, 2018

I like comparing perfect and imperfect like:

  • Perfect: you're done, duration doesn't matter, what happened "while" doing it doesn't matter
  • Imperfect: you have a "time room" where something "was happening" or "used to happen".
July 16, 2018

I'd also like to add to this basic and essential difference that imperfect is often easily imagined as present shifted back into the past.

Imagine the things happening around you now. If you were to talk about it later on, you would use imperfeito to capture everything as it was, to set the stage. And then you'd use perfeito to advance the story forward by capturing the events happening on that stage, seeing them as complete and completed. You can stay in the world created with imperfeito, on that stage, for as long as you need to tell the story, moving forward through time using perfeito.

Imperfeito doesn't move the story forward, it keeps us waiting to find out what happened.

July 16, 2018

That's a good summary, unfortunately it's not difficult to find a context where the imperfect can carry the notion that something is "done" or "over with", for instance when talking about deceased people: "ela falava Inglês" means that she no longer does while "ela falou Inglês" means that at some point she said something in English but doesn't say anything about her current situation. So it could be argued that in this situation the imperfect is actually semantically indicating that the situation is "perfected" (finished).

I think it's easy to rationalize the usage with simple rules when you already know which tense needs to be used, unfortunately the other way around (finding the right rule to derive which tense needs to be used) is, in my experience, a lot harder.

It's still a good idea to have these rules of course, I just wanted to stress that the learners shouldn't be too hard on themselves if they get it wrong, it's difficult and requires a lot of practice to become proficient. At some point you need to learn the "music" of the language and let it guide you, grammar books only get you so far.

July 17, 2018

On the website, visit the Tips and notes for the imperfect past and the subjunctive past skill.

Their hints are the best way I could explain them so far.

The tips and notes for present subjunctive may also be a good introduction to subjunctive before going into the most complicated of them :)

There are also these posts:

July 16, 2018

I don't have in mind all the rules right now, even because portuguese is my native language so I learned it by using it. BUT if you have some specific question, feel free to ask me and I'll try to give you some advices. However, keep in mind that there are several cases when a given rule doesn't apply to every case you find out there.

July 16, 2018

Well you have to use the imperfect tense when you're saying "I used to...", that's a constant I guess.

I really have no idea how to explain the difference between "Eu andei" and "Eu andava", "Eu andei" and "Eu andasse", "Eu ando" and "Eu andar" (future subjunctive, this one is really tough).

I guess you just gotta read as much as you can and eventually your brain will adapt.

July 16, 2018

One of the differences between ando, andei e andava is:

"Eu ando" - meaning I walk.

"Eu andei" - meaning I walked.

"Eu andava" - meaning I used to walk.

"Eu andei" VS "Eu andasse":

This will require an example, given that "andar" doesn't have a single meaning. It follows:

Eu andei de bicicleta

I rode my bike | I have biked

what can be said as something you already did

Se eu andasse de bicicleta, chegaria mais rápido

If I rode my bike, it would be faster

generally "andasse" appears in conditional sentences.

July 16, 2018
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