Portuguese Protip: the interchangeable imperfect and conditional

->This is an Advanced ProTip

I’ve made a big deal on this site about how Brazilian Portuguese is really two languages: an informal, spoken language, and a formal written language. And of course it’s more complicated than that, because there are shades in between… there’s formal speech (a sermon) and informal writing (your facebook wall), and in each case the register of language you use will be different. Well, this post is about one of those subtle differences in register that you might not even know exists until you really listen closely to the language. But once you learn it, you’ll have it in your arsenal as one more way to shape the language that you use to the situation at hand. Although learning this stuff can be a bit dry, think about it this way: it’s just another way to help you express yourself – to control the color of your language. Do you want to sound flowery, professional, respectful, old-fashioned, hip, or down-to-earth? When you understand register in Portuguese, you get to choose.

The Imperfect and the Conditional

To get us started, I’ll just briefly review the imperfect and the conditional tenses, which I’m going to assume you’ve been exposed to before.

In Portuguese, you have the imperfect tense, which is one of the past tenses used to describe ongoing or habitual actions. Here’s how you form the imperfect on the regular -er verb comer, “to eat”:

eu/você/ele/ela comia

nós comíamos

eles/elas/vocês comiam

You also have the conditional tense (actually a mood, but whatever), which you use to express hypothetical actions in the same way that you use the English word “would” + verb.  Here’s how you form the conditional of comer:

eu/você/ele/ela comeria

nós comeríamos

eles/elas/vocês comeriam

Notice that the endings for the imperfect and the conditional (at least for -er and -ir verbs) are the same. The only difference is that for the imperfect, you drop the -er and add the ending, whereas for the conditional you keep the -er and add the ending after it.

Well, it turns out there’s a reason why they look very similar – and it’s that they are also functionally very similar.

One pecularity of Portuguese that many teachers don’t tell you is that the conditional and the imperfect tenses are highly interchangeable. For a long time, this was a great mystery to me. In fact, if you listen to Brazilian speech, you may be surprised to hear the imperfect used in many places where an English speaker would use the conditional. The reason is that the conditional in Portuguese has a rather formal ring to it, so most speakers tend to avoid using it in everyday conversation.

This leads us to a great tip for sounding natural in your speech:

TIP #1: In informal speech, almost anywhere you as an English speaker would use the conditional, you can also use the imperfect. The meaning will not change, but you will sound less formal and more natural.

For example, here’s two different ways to say “If I were president, I would lower taxes”:

1) Formal speech, or writing : Se eu fosse presidente, diminuiria a taxa de impostos.

2) Informal speech: Se eu fosse presidente, diminuia a taxa de impostos.

The first sentence is something you might hear in a political speech. But the second is closer to what you’d say to your friend over a beer. Most textbooks will teach you only the formal usage. But, the informal usage is just as correct, and would be used by most Brazilians in daily conversation. Yet another way that Brazilian Portuguese is really two languages!

Note, by the way, that the reverse of the above tip is not true. If you are using the imperfect to describe an ongoing event in the past, you cannot use the conditional in its place. Well, most of the time you can’t. For example:

Quando eu era criança, tinha cabelo crespo. (When I was a child, I had curly hair).

It would be wrong here to use the conditional instead of the imperfect: Quando eu seria criança, teria cabelo crespo.

Parallels in English

If all this seems a little weird or nonsensical, consider that even in English, the conditional and the imperfect are sometimes interchangeable. For example, let’s remember that the imperfect tense in Portuguese is usually translated in one of four ways in English:

Naquela época, eu acordava às 5 todos os dias.

  1. Back then, I got up at 5 every day.
  2. Back then, I was getting up at 5 every day.
  3. Back then, I used to get up at 5 every day.
  4. Back then, I would get up a 5 every day.

Note that the last option, #4, is equivalent to the English conditional: the form “would” + verb.

Another equivalence happens with the irregular English verb “could”. Compare these two sentences:

1) He was able to borrow the car whenever he wanted. (imperfect usage)  = He could borrow the car whenever he wanted.

2) He would be able to borrow the car, if he asked his parents (conditional usage) = He could borrow the car, if he asked his parents.

Here, the word “could” can imply either the imperfect usage or the conditional usage, depending on context. In the same way, the imperfect of the Portuguese verb “poder” (“to be able”) can be used both ways. Here’s those same two sentences in Portuguese:

1) Naquela época, ele podia usar o carro sempre que quisesse. (imperfect usage)

2) Ele podia/poderia usar o carro, se pedisse os pais. (conditional usage)

In the first sentence, only podia will do. But in the second, according to our tip above, either podia (the imperfect) or poderia (the conditional) can be used. In a newspaper article or a formal speech, you’d probably hear poderia. But in casual, everyday speech, most people would say podia.

The Neutral Register

So now you know that in certain situations where you would say “would” in English, you may use either the imperfect or the conditional interchangeably. Now, there is actually a third option that you should know about, which in terms of register is neutral. It would be equally at home in speech or in a piece of writing like a newspaper article. It looks like this:

3) Se eu fosse presidente, eu ia diminuir a taxa de impostos. (“If I were president, I would lower taxes.”)

This form is constructed using the imperfect of ir + the verb infinitive. Remember that the imperfect of ir is eu/você/ele/ela ia, nós íamos, eles/elas/vocês iam.

Back to the Future

Here’s where things get interesting, and we fall a bit deeper down the rabbit hole. The structure I just described using ir is the exact same construction that you use when talking about the future from a past perspective. And as it turns out, this “future of the past” is another situation where you can use either of the three options we’ve discussed. For example,

1) She said she was going to call you the next day. = Ela disse que ia ligar pra você no dia seguinte. [neutral]

This sentence describes what someone in the past said they were going to do in the future. Now, usually when talking about the future we use the present tense of ir plus the infinitive (ela vou ligar). So it makes sense that to talk about the future of the past, we use a parallel construction with a past tense of ir, in this case the imperfect tense (ela ia ligar). Here, ia ligar is a direct translation of the English “was going to call”.

But! Couldn’t we also say the exact same thing in English using the conditional?

2) She said she would call you the next day. = Ela disse que te ligaria no dia seguinte. [formal]

We could. And, as you can see, the conditional also works just fine in Portuguese too. The only difference is that it sounds more formal than ia ligar (which is why I used the more formal indirect object pronoun te instead of the informal para você). Morphologically, it’s almost as if the ia in ia ligar just jumped ahead and attached itself to the end of ligar to form the conditional, ligaria. Maybe that’s how the language evolved, who knows.

But! As we know from the tip above, any time we have the conditional, we can replace it with the imperfect. So actually, we have yet one more way to say the same thing, this time using the imperfect:

3) Ela disse que ligava pra você no dia seguinte. [informal]

This time there is no parallel structure in English; it would sound a bit awkward to say “She said she was calling you the next day”. But in Portuguese it sounds just fine, though you’d only want to use it in casual speech.

Once again, we see that there’s a functional equivalence between 1) the imperfect, 2) the conditional, and 3) the imperfect of ir + infinitive. The only difference is register. Pretty cool, huh?

So to sum up, here’s a second tip:

TIP #2: When talking about the future from a past perspective, you can use (1) the imperfect (very informal), (2) ia + the infinitive (neutral), or (3) the conditional (formal).

To my ear, ia + infinitive seems to be the most common way Brazilians talk about the future past. Perhaps any Brazilians who are reading could comment how each of these options sounds to them.

One cautionary note about the ia + infinitive formation when the infinitive you want to use is ir. Just like you would never say Eu vou ir pra a praia amanhã, but rather Eu vou pra a praia amanhã (“I’m going [to go] to the beach tomorrow”), you would also never say Ela disse que ia ir pra a praia amanhã, but instead Ela disse que ia pra a praia amanhã. (“She said she was going [to go] to the beach tomorrow”). As you can see from my translations, in English the “to go” infinitive is optional in such sentences. But in Portuguese you can’t use ir as an auxiliary for itself, so you must drop the infinitive.

Putting in into Practice

So, when might you actually use these tips? I can think of a few different situations.

1. Asking for help or making a request. Poder is useful for these situations. Instead of Você poderia me ajudar?, which is perfectly acceptable but a bit stuffy, you can simply say to your friend Podia me ajudar? Instead of Você poderia ir ao supermercado e comprar arroz? you could say Cê podia ir no supermercado e comprar arroz? (notice how I changed the preposition to make it less formal too). Depending on who you’re asking, of course, you might want to stick with the conditional, because it will make the request sound more respectful.

2. Indirect speech, otherwise known as “reporting something someone said in the past.” Instead of the quite formal Ele perguntou se nós compraríamos os passagens hoje (“He asked if we were going to buy the tickets today”) you could say, Ele perguntou se a gente ia comprar os passagens hoje, or even the very informal Ele perguntou se a gente comprava as passagens hoje. (I changed nós to a gente to make it more informal – remember that register isn’t about just changing one word – you have to think about the whole statement).

3. Talking about remote possibilities – a remote possibility being something that could plausibly happen, but isn’t imminently likely. Here you usually use a structure like [Se + statement with the imperfect subjunctive, statement with the conditional]. For example: Se seu pai soubesse, ele faria furioso (If your father knew, he’d be furious). In this case, you could replace the conditional verb with the imperfect: Se o seu pai soubesse, ficava zangado.

4. Giving advice. Here you can use the “If I were you, I would…” structure, which is just a special case of #3 above. Instead of Se eu fosse você, venderia a casa (“If I were you, I’d sell the house”), you could say Se fosse você, vendia a casa.

Now, this may all seem a bit arcane. It probably is. But I do think one of the secrets of fluency is to fine-tune your command of the language so that you have an arsenal of different ways to express yourself depending on whether you’re speaking or writing, who your audience is, and what situation you’re in. And by the way, this is exactly the kind of topic you will find treated in great depth in the book Modern Brazilian Portuguese Grammar, which I’ve recommended elsewhere on this site. If you want to really master these kinds of subtleties in Brazilian Portuguese, I highly recommend getting a copy.

This entry was posted in Grammar, Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Portuguese Protip: the interchangeable imperfect and conditional

  1. Jillian says:

    Thank you so much for this explanation. I have been grappling with this very same aspect lately. The way you make comparisons to how we use English (here and in other parts of your site) is very, very helpful & reassuring (for me) !!!

  2. Lauren says:

    Thanks for the feedback – I’m glad it was helpful!

  3. Xolang says:

    I was doing an exercise on Conditional sentence in European(!) Portuguese and was wondering why the Conditional and Imperfect were used interchangeably. then I landed on this page and I have to say that I’m really impressed. Thank you, and bravo! (-:

  4. Ellen says:

    Great the explanation on the use of Conditional / Imperfect interchangeable.

    What about: ‘ eu disse que vou ao meeting amanha’. Is this a correct option, or is it totally wrong?

    Many thanks.

    • Lauren says:

      Ooh, great question Ellen, and one I’m not totally sure I know the answer to. My intuition says you are correct in using “vou” because in this case, the action in the future is still in the future. I’ll have to consult my Brazilian “sources” and get back to you :-)

  5. kris says:

    Hello.

    Good explanation. Now I understand more, thanks to you. I just have one doubt. I thought that ex. “Eu comprava” refers to: “I used to buy (something)”. So You were buying something in the past more than onec (habit). But you explain that “Eu comprava” also means : I bought, I was buting or I would buy. In my opinion this explanation is a bit misleading, and “Eu comprava” means “I used to buy” something more than once :)

    • Mark says:

      Kris,

      “Used to do X” is only ONE of the verb constructions in English that the Portuguese imperfect can be equal to. Contrary to what this articles claims, there is no such thing as the “imperfect” tense in English, there are only verb tense that may be used to express what the imperfect in Portuguese is used for. Depending on the situation, in English you would be using simple past, past progressive, used to do, or would do. The last two on the list are identical in meaning and usage; The “would do” is NOT the conditional tense, though it looks they same. Example: When I was young I would often go to the park.

  6. Mark says:

    Good article, but a few things bother me, including the free misuse of terminology. For example, you claim English “conditional” is being used in certain cases for a non-conditional situation, but this is incorrect. What you are claiming is “conditional,” is not; it is merely the past tense of can, which is could, followed by infinitive, logically being used to express something that was possible either at a past point in time or as an ongoing thing(imperfect). Just because two things have the same spelling does not mean one is the other. When it comes to modal such as could and would, this is exactly why learners of English get confused, and this article promotes this confusion.

    The statement below is also false. This verb form “is” possible and parallel in English, and it is NOT awkward. It is 100% normal and correct to say, “She said she was coming today/ tomorrow/next year/etc.”

    3) Ela disse que ligava pra você no dia seguinte. [informal]

    This time there is no parallel structure in English; it would sound a bit awkward to say “She said she was calling you the next day”. But in Portuguese it sounds just fine, though you’d only want to use it in casual speech.

  7. Steven says:

    Thank you so much! This helps me a ton. I’ve been in Brazil for the past couple of months and this kind of stuff has been killing me. I learned one thing in school, and then I talk with some Brazilians and get extremely confused. Nobody has really been able to explain this difference well and I’ve been noticing this use of the imperfect a lot since I read this article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *