Portuguese Past Tenses 101

Preterite Indicative for limited, completed actions

The first past tense that most Portuguese learners tackle is the preterite indicative, which is used to describe simple, closed-off past events.

The regular verb conjugations are as follows. (We’ll include the translation for the first example but the rest will be self-explanatory once you’ve seen it one time.)

Verbs ending in -ar, like falar (to speak):

eu falei — I speak

você/ele/ela falou — you/he/she speak(s)

nós falamos — we speak

vocês/eles/elas falaram — you (plural)/they (male or mixed gender)/they (females) speak

Verbs ending in -er, like beber (to drink):

eu bebi

você/ele/ela bebeu

nós bebemos

vocês/eles/elas beberam

Verbs ending in -ir, like dormir (to sleep):

eu dormi

você/ele/ela dormiu

nós dormimos

vocês/eles/elas dormiram

Pop quiz: Can you spot which of the above conjugations is exactly the same as its present tense version?

Answer: The nós forms.

So we say, for example, ontem bebemos cachaça (we drank cachaçayesterday) and use the same verbal form to say bebemos cachaça todos os dias (we drink cachaça every day). Context is needed to make clear whether the past or present is intended.

The preterite is the Portuguese tense for talking about single, completed actions or those that were repeated but happened in discreet, completed time units in the speaker’s mind. As usual in Portuguese, the pronouns are omitted unless necessary for emphasis or clarity; the conjugations are otherwise enough to indicate who did what.

Here are some examples with regular verbs:

Falei com ela às 10:00 da manhã. — I spoke with her at 10:00 a.m.

Eles beberam café sem açúcar essa manhã. — They drank coffee without sugar this morning.

Adorei o show. — I loved the concert.

Once you get the hang of the regular verbs, brace yourself, because things are about to get weird.

Conjugating important irregular preterite indicative verbs

The most-used verbs in Portuguese are irregular—worn down and warped by generations of tongues lapping lazily at them—and this is particularly true with preterite conjugations.

These irregular preterite verb conjugations are incredibly important to learn well not just because you need them so often, but also because they’re useful as you move on to study the future and imperfect subjunctive forms, whose irregular conjugations can be derived from your knowledge of the preterite indicative.

Here are a few the most important ones to get you started. You’ll want to memorize all of them!

saber (to know, but in the preterite means to have heard about something, learned or to have found out):

eu soube

você/ele/ela soube

nós soubemos

vocês/eles/elas souberam


Eu soube que eles estão ficando. — I heard that they’re dating.

dizer (to say, to tell):

eu disse

você/ele/ela disse

nós dissemos

vocês/eles/elas disseram


Dissemos tudo que pensamos. — We said everything we thought.

pôr (to put)

eu pus

você/ele/ela pôs

nós pusemos

vocês/eles/elas puseram


Ela se pôs a aprender croata. — She got down to studying Croatian.

This verb isn’t actually favored in Brazil in its basic sense of “to put”; colocaris more common for that, instead. But you need to know pôr anyway, as its compounds (compor “to compose,” opor-se “to oppose,” etc.) have the same conjugations.

dar (to give):

eu dei

você/ele/ela deu

nós demos

vocês/eles/elas deram


Eles me deram uma mochila chique. — They gave me a fancy backpack.

estar (to be [temporary])

eu estive

você/ele/ela esteve

nós estivemos

vocês/eles/elas estiveram


Eu já estive cinco vezes no Brasil! — I was in Brazil five times already!

ser (to be [characteristic]) and ir (to go): These two verbs are different in plenty of tenses but share the exact same preterite indicative forms.

eu fui

você/ele/ela foi

nós fomos

vocês/eles/elas foram


Fui ao Brasil em maio. — I went to Brazil in May.

Foi um dia de sacanagem. — It was a day of messing around/naughtiness.

Imperfect: Set the scene for hazy, unfinished past conditions

The Portuguese solution for setting scenes and talking about the way things used to be is the imperfect. It often translates into English with the constructions “was …ing” and “used to…”

The regular conjugations are as follows. Notice that the first- and third-person singular forms are always identical.

Verbs ending in -ar, like falar (to speak):

eu/você/ele/ela falava

nós falávamos

vocês/eles/elas falavam

Verbs ending in -er, like beber (to drink):

eu/você/ele/ela bebia

nós bebíamos

vocês/eles/elas bebiam

Verbs ending in -ir, like dormir (to sleep):

eu/você/ele/ela dormia

nós dormíamos

vocês/eles/elas dormiam

Notice that -er and -ir verbs have identical endings in this tense.

The imperfect indicative is pretty regular, but an important irregular imperfect verb to know is ser (to be):

eu/você/ele/ela era

nós éramos

vocês/eles/elas eram

When to use the imperfect

To start employing these conjugations, it’s helpful to keep in mind how this tense differs from the preterite. Recall that the preterite was for talking about completed events seen as a point in time. The imperfect, on the other hand, is a bit more wishy-washy about when things started and especially when they ended.

I’ve got some funny little characters on my keyboard that get the preterite and imperfect contrasts across even better than my most well-crafted verbiage.


Imperfect: ~

Does it make sense now?

Let’s see that idea in action. We can contrast the following two sentences:

Preterite: Eu pedi conselhos para ela sobre o Rio. — I asked her for advice for Rio.

Imperfect: Eu sempre pedia conselhos para ela sobre o Rio. — I used to always ask her for advice for Rio.

Let’s dig a little more specifically into more uses that trigger the imperfect. The key obvious one’s when we want to talk about how things used to be.

Eu sempre trazia um laptop para trabalhar nas férias. — I used to always bring a laptop to work during vacations.

Ele era vegetariano quando era jovem. — He was a vegetarian when he was young.

If you’re launching into a story, you usually set the scene first, which again calls up the imperfect.

A praia estava vazia e o sol brilhava no mar. — The beach was empty and the sun was shining on the sea.

And you can use the imperfect to set a mini-scene for what was going onwhen—bang!—a pointed, preteritey thing happened.

Andava de bicicleta quando ela ligou. — I was biking when she called.

In spoken Brazilian Portuguese, the imperfect indicative tense often replaces the conditional mood (usually corresponding to “would + verb” in English). It’s incredibly important for learners to at least be aware of this use to avoid misunderstandings (unfortunately, many books and courses skip over it).

For example:

Ontem eu disse que eles tocavam chorinho hoje. — Yesterday I said that they’d play chorinho today.

Se eu estivesse usando um colete lindo, ela dançava comigo. — If I were wearing a pretty vest, she’d dance with me.

It’d mean the same, and be considered “correct,” to write these sentences with the conditional mood. So if you’re being given some sort of Portuguese quiz, you can also write:

Ontem eu disse que eles tocariam chorinho hoje.

Se usasse um colete lindo, ela dançaria comigo.