There is no difference in the use of the imperfeito between the different roman languages. The Portuguese imperfeito is used the same way as the Italian imperfetto, the French imparfait, the Spanish imperfecto. It is used if an action is repeated continually in the past (He always came late), if an action is interrupted by an other action, in this case we use the continuous form in English (I was reading a book when he suddenly showed up at the door), it is used when the beginning or the end of an action in the past are unknown or irrelevant (When I met him last time he worked as an engineer => It is irrelevant when he started to work as an engineer and whether he still works as engineer). That sounds pretty much like the way the simple past is used in English and concerning the aspect mentionne abover there is no difference between the Portuguese imperfeito and the English simple past. Hhowever there is another aspect to be taken into account, a very relevant one, and concerning this aspect there is a big difference between the Portuguese imperfeito and the English simple past.
In English the simple past is used as well for accomplished actions in a accomplished past: He earned a lot money last year, but this year he earned almost nothing.
|simple past to describe an action whose beginning and end is unknown or irrelevant|
|When I talked to him last time, he was still ill. |
=> Perhaps he is still ill, perhaps he feels better.
|accomplished action in an accomplished past|
|Last year I read a lot of books about this issue.
=> I don't do that anymore. The action is accomplished in an accomplished past.
The English simple past is therefore used in two completely different contexts and that never ever happens in Portuguese. For an accomplished action in an accomplished past the pasado perfeito simples is to be used. The imperfeito can never be used instead of a perfeito simples and the perfeito simples can never be used instead of the imperfeito.
There is another difference. If an ongoing action is interrupted by another action we use the simple past continuous in English.
I was sleeping, when the car crashed against the wall.
not: I slept, when.....
Given the fact that the English simple past has so many function it is necessary to use a continuous form in case that we want to describe an ongoing action. In roman languages however, and therefore in Portuguese as well, the imperfeito has less functions and can be used as well to describe ongoing actions in the past. Beside a few rare exception there is no need to use estar + gerundio, the equivalent to the English to be + gerund, in the past. The imperfeito alone can describe an ongoing action interrupted by another action. (Sometimes one can read that English native speakers tend to make an exaggerated use of estar + gerundio because they use it in any context where in roman languages the imperfeito is used. Hard to prove this thesis, but it plausible.)
Given the fact that the English simple past can describe an ongoing action as well as a punctual action we have to choose the continuous form when the ongoing action is interrupted by another action.
We were talking about him when we suddenly heard his voice.
not: We talked about him when we suddenly heard his voice.
The imperfeito is charming, because it is very easy to form, there are very few verbs that are irregular in imperfeito. Actually there are only three of them, ser (to be), ter (to have) and vir (to come) and of these verbs the forms must be learned, because two of them, ser and ter, are the two most important verbs in any language because they serve as well as auxiliary verbs. (That' s actually a rule, valid in all languages. One would expect that the most used verbs are always regular, because people hear them so often, that they know how to conjugate them. However the opposite is true. These verbs are always the most irregular verbs. That's the case as well in English. The simple past of to be is completely irregular in English.)
In Portuguese we distinguish three types of verbs, those who end in -ar (falar = to speak), those who end in -er (vender = to sell) and those who end on -ir (traducir = to translate). The imperfeito is formed by leaving out these endings and adding to the stem, what remains when the endings have been taken away, the respective endings of the imperfeito. To the personal pronoun você and the personal pronoun o senhor correspond both the English personal pronoun you, however there is a difference. In Brasilian Portuguese the situation is very simple. Você corresponds to you, in other words it is used whether there is a closer, more intimate relationship to the person we talk to or not. In Portuguese the situation is somehow complicated, see chapter five. In theory você is something in between intimate relationship and only formal relationship, but it seems that some people get angry if they are adressed with você, so the best thing to do, in Portugal, is not to use it at all. If there is a close relationship, if we talk to a friend or a member of the family, the better choice in Portugal is tu. If we talk to someone completely unknown or in a more formal context, we use o senhor / a senhora.
|verbs ending in -ar||verbs ending in -er||verbs ending in -ir|
|falar = to speak, stem: fal||vender = to sell, stem: vend||traduzir = translate, stem: traduz|
|eu||falava||I spoke||vendia||I sold||traduzia||I translated|
|tu||falavas||you spoke||vendias||you sold||traduzias||you translated|
o senhor, a senhora
he / she / it spoke
|vendia|| he / she / it spoke|
|traduzia|| he / she / it spoke
|nós||falávamos||we spoke||vendíamos||we spoke||traduzíamos||we spoke|
|eles elas |
os senhores, as senhoras
|vendiam||they spoke||traduziam|| they spoke
In the following table we see different contextes in which the imperfeito can be used. It can't be used in other contextes. Most of all it can't be used to describe an accomplished action in an accomplished past. The simple past in English can be used as well to decribe an accomplished action in an accomplished past, in other words an action that doesn't have any other impact on the present. (If there is an impact on the present the present perfect is used in English.) The imperfeito can never be used to describe an accomplished action in an accomplished past in Portuguese. To describe an accomplished action in an accomplished past we must use the pefeito simples. (If you speak Spanish or any other roman language: In opposite to all other roman languages in portguese the perfeito simples is used as well to describe an action whose impact can still perceived in the present.)
|The imperfeito to describe actions whose beginning and end is unknown or irrelevant|
|two action are performed at the same time|
|regular repetion in the past|
|Ongoing action that is interrupted by a punctual action. For the punctual action we use the perfeito simples.|
|personal pronoun||ter = to have||ser = to be||vir = to come|
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