Understanding the Differences Between Pretérito Perfeito and Imperfeito in European Portuguese

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My students love to say “the past tense”. Well, flash news: there is not ONE past tense in Portuguese, there are many. Understanding their different uses is key when learning European Portuguese.

Two commonly used past tenses are the Pretérito Perfeito and the Pretérito Imperfeito. Understanding their differences and knowing when to use each can significantly enhance your fluency and accuracy in Portuguese.

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Pretérito Perfeito

The Pretérito Perfeito is used to describe actions that were completed in the past. This tense is SIMILAR BUT NOT equivalent to the simple past in English and indicates that the action had a definite beginning and end.

We use the PPS for actions that are:

    • Short and finished

    • Happened in the past

    • The main highlighted element in the story


Eu comi uma maçã ontem. 
I ate an apple yesterday.
Ela foi ao cinema no sábado passado. 
She went to the cinema last Saturday.
Nós estudámos para o exame durante três horas. 
We studied for the exam for three hours.

In these sentences, the actions of eating, going, and studying are all completed events that happened at specific points in the past.

Pretérito Imperfeito

The Pretérito Imperfeito, on the other hand, is used to describe actions that WERE ongoing or habitual in the past. It sets the scene, describes past routines, or indicates actions that were in progress at a particular time in the past.

Careful! Do not use the pretérito imperfeito as the past participle in English. When actions started in the past but are still ongoing, we use the present tense.


Eu comia uma maçã todos os dias. 
I used to eat an apple every day.
Ela ia ao cinema todas as semanas. 
She used to go to the cinema every week.
Nós estudávamos para o exame todos os dias. 
We used to study for the exam every day.

Here, the actions of eating, going, and studying are described as habitual or ongoing, without a specified beginning or end.

Useful links:

Don’t know how to use the Present Tense in Portuguese? Watch this! 

The Lazy Future Tense in European Portuguese.

5 Common Mistakes that are Ruining Your European Portuguese Grammar!

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Key Differences

    1. Completion vs. Continuity:
        • Pretérito Perfeito denotes actions that are completed and short.

        • Pretérito Imperfeito describes actions that were continuous, repeated, or habitual, but are completed now.

    1. Definite Time vs. Indefinite Time:
        • Pretérito Perfeito refers to actions at specific times.

        • Pretérito Imperfeito often refers to actions without a definite end, focusing on the duration or repetition.

    1. Narrative Use:
        • Pretérito Perfeito is used to advance the storyline.

        • Pretérito Imperfeito provides background information and context.

Practical Usage

When telling a story in Portuguese, you might use both tenses to convey different aspects of past events:


“Quando eu era criança, eu brincava no parque todos os dias. Um dia, eu encontrei uma carteira no chão.”

Translation: “When I was a child, I used to play in the park every day. One day, I found a wallet on the ground.”

In this sentence, “era” (was) and “brincava” (used to play) are in the Pretérito Imperfeito, setting the scene and describing a habitual action. “Encontrei” (found) is in the Pretérito Perfeito, highlighting a specific completed action that advances the narrative.

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