Verbs: The Imperfect Indicative
Not too difficult eh? Right then, let’s start to make things a
little more complicated. Another tense that has to do with the past
is the ‘imperfect indicative’. Basically, this refers to an
action that took place in the past, but was ongoing for a period of
time and where the time of completion of the action is not specified.
It is precisely because of this lack of a specified time that the
tense is called ‘imperfect’.
We don't really have a direct equivalent in English - we use the
preterite, past continuous, or conditional instead. Here are some English equivalents of the imperfect
I was working here in those days (past continuous)
I worked here in those days (preterite)
In those days I would work here then go home (conditional)
In English, it is typically the context that places the use of the
verb in the imperfect - in the above examples, the use of 'in those
days' indicates an ongoing action with no specific start or end.
Without that context, we would not know that it was imperfect
(relating to an ongoing past action without a specified completion
event). In Portuguese, the verb ending directly implies the imperfect
aspect, so you don't need the extra contextual information to know
that the timing of the action the verb relates to is not specific.
This tense is also used when you want to refer to something that
used to happen. You can either use appropriate conjugation of the
verb in the imperfect tense directly, or use the appropriate
conjugation of the verb ‘costumar’ in the imperfect, followed by
the infinitive of the verb you are referring to (so ‘Eu costumava
trabalhar aqui’ and ‘Eu trabalhava aqui’ could both be used to
mean ‘I used to work here’).
So when you are talking about something that extended over an
indefinite period of time – as opposed to an event or something
that was accomplished – you use the imperfect indicative rather
than the preterite.
Note the difference between the words ‘foi’ (preterite) and
‘era’ (imperfect indicative) – and their equivalents for the
other ‘persons’ of their respective tenses. This is often the
source of confusion, because both words are usually translated as
‘was’ in English, and both come from the verb ‘ser’. The rule
is exactly the same as for the other verbs though – ‘foi’ is
used for an event or accomplished action, and ‘era’ relates to an
action or process which occurred over an indefinite period of time in
the past. So…