11.3. pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto

The pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto is the most beautiful tense in all languages. Its use is easy to understand, it is used the same way in all languages and it is easy to form. It is formed with the verb ter, seldom haver, in imperfeito as an auxiliary verb and the past participle. There is no distinction in Portuguese between transitive and intransitive verbs as in French or Italian. The only problem is that the imperfeito of the verb ter is irregular. All compound tenses in Portuguese are formed with the verb ter and the past participle. In grammar books you can sometimes find haver as an auxiliary verb. One should be able to recognize this form when it shows up in a text, what may happen in classical literature, but there is no need to use is actively, writing or speaking.

auxiliary verb in imperfeito participio perfeito
eutinha hatte
comido eaten
escrito written
podido been able
estado been
sido been
dado given
posto put
tu tinhashattest
ele, ela
você
o senhor, a senhora
tinhahatte
nóstinhamoshatten
eles, elas
vocês
os senhores, as senhoras
tinhamhatten


Eu tinha comido.
I had eaten.
Tu tinhas escrito.
You had written.
Ele tinha dado.
He had given.
Nós tinhamos posto.
We had put.


In grammar books that are addressed to university students of philology you can find another tense, the mais-que-perfeito simples. This tense is not used any more but you have to recognize it passively, because it shows up in classical literature. In O Cortiço for instance, the novel you find in the literature part of this website, it is used very often. Its function is the same as of the pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto. We translate with the past perfect. The third person singular is identical to the third person singular of the pretérito perfeito simples.

falar => falaram => falar dizer =>disseram => dissersaber => souberam = souber
eu falara I had maddissera I had saidsoubera I had known
tu falaras You had maddisseras You had saidsouberas You had known
ele / elafalara He / she had mad disssera He / she had saidsoubera He / she had known
nósfaláramos We had mad disserámos We had said souberámos We had known
eles / elasfalaram

They had maddisseram

They had saidsouberam

They had known


Quando o noivo apareceu, a noivachegara na igreja.
When the groom appeared the bride already had arrived in the church.
When the groom appeared, the bride had already arrived at the church.


The aspects that are describe by the past perfect / mais-que-perfeito composto are established very firmly in the human brain and we have no shifting use as in other tenses. It could be supposed that a tense as stable as the past perfect is described as well correctly in the grammar books, however this is not the case. In most grammar books the past tense is defined as a tense that is used if we want to describe an action or an event that ocurred before another action or event in the past. This is obviously nonsense. If we have several following actions / events it is obvious that one event ocurred before the other, but that alone doesn't lead to the use of the past tense.

He entered the restaurant, ordered something to drink, he drank it, paid and left the restaurant.

There is no need to use the past perfect / pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto in this case, although it is obvious that the action of entering the restaurant happened before leaving it.

The fact that one action / event ocurred before another action / event in the past doesn't justify the past tense. We need the past perfect in the following circunstances.

The events / actions are not toled in the right chronological order
1. She read the letter he wrote her, showed it to her friend and both amused themselves.
2. She read the letter he had written her, showed it to her friend and both amused themselves.
[She reads the letter he has written her, shows it to her friend and both amuse themselves. ]

=> The present perfect has the same function as the past perfect, but rerefers to the present of the speaker.


1. would be strange in any language. 1. suggests a parallelism between reading and writing the letter what is actually nothing that fits in this context. Possible would be "She read the letters he wrote her". In this case he wrote her several letters and she read all of them. If we have only one letter, she would read it at the same time he is writing it. In this case there is no need to write a letter.

The past tense can't revert, in opposite to the past perfect, the chronological order. The past perfect has a strong semantic value, it can reverse the chronological order. In 2. we understand without any problem that the letter was written before it was read.

Portuguese examples with reversed chronological order
Quandoeu cheguei, ele tinha telefonado.
When I arrived he already had telephoned.
When I arrived he had already telephoned.
O marido mentiu para a polícia, mas a mulher tinha dito a verdade.
The husband lied to the police but the woman had told the truth.


Furthermore the past perfect is to be used if an action, an event, a proces has an impact on another action, event or process in the past. In this case the past perfect is the present perfect of the past, at least in any other language than Portuguese. The present perfect in Portuguese does not describe the impact of an action on the present of the speaker, see pretérito perfeito composto. However the preterito mais-que-perfeito composto has the same function as the past perfect.

correct: I had not read the book and therefore I was not able to say anything about it.
wrong: I didn't read the book and therefore I was not able to say anything about it.


This logic is, as far as the pretérito mais-que-perfeito is concerned, valid in any language or at least for any indogermanic language. We have therefore the strange situation that in the case of the pretérito mais-que-perfeito composto the impact of an action on the following period of time is relevant as well in portuguese, but in the case of the pretérito perfeito composto this impact is irrelevant. In other indogermanic language the logic is the same for both tenses..

example in Portuguese
Tinha perdido a carteira e por isso ficava sem dinheiro.
Had lost the wallet and because that remained without money.
I had lost the wallet and therefore I didn't have money.

The following sentence is a variation. The fact that he had to do the work again is not a logical consequence of the fact that he had done the work already, but we understand that he had not done it well and therefore he had to do it again.

example Portuguese
Tinha feito o trabalho, mas tive que fazê-lo outra vez.
Had done the work but had to do it once again.
He had done the work, but he had to do it again.





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