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I recently moved to Brazil and am trying to learn Portuguese.

The one thing, that I'm curious about is the imperfect past (“fazia”) v. continuous past (“estava fazendo”). I understand the basic rules, including that the imperfect is for repetitive actions, habits etc., but there’s one type of situation that confuses me: which tense to use.

On the wiki, the description of the imperfect had: “For instance, we would NOT use the imperfect for the sentence ‘I ate an apple’ because the action has finished. However, the sentence ‘I was eating an apple’ describes something that was happening at a moment in time.”

So, when I'm referring to a process from the past, such as in the dialogue “What were you doing — I was sleeping”, would it be “Eu dormia”, “Eu estava dormindo” or “Eu dormir”?

Because it was an ongoing process, is the imperfect grammatically correct and would people use it here, in Brazil?

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    Ziegler, welcome to Portuguese Language SE. Have a look at this question and answers. I believe they answer your own question. If you think they do, then we can mark yours as duplicate; if not, please edit your question and tell us what it is that you'd still like to know that is not in the answers to the other question.
    – Jacinto
    Oct 6 at 18:08
  • @Jacinto Is there any important difference between the Brazilian and the European variants? For instance, in pt-br "Eu dormia" would hardly ever be used to mean "I was sleeping", how about pt-pt, isn't it more possible there?
    – stafusa
    Oct 6 at 19:30
  • @stafusa, I reckon it's the same. I would nearly always say eu estava dormindo (or rather, estava a dormir); dormia to mean estava dormindo is more literary. Aren't you guys answering a duplicate?
    – Jacinto
    Oct 6 at 22:21
  • @Jacinto the title yes, but how to say what were you doing is mostly a choice between estavas a fazer and estiveste a fazer, which is what I focused on
    – Artefacto
    Oct 6 at 22:58
  • @Jacinto In part, yes. If the community voted to close I wouldn't protest, but, especially after Artefacto gave the second answer to the question I felt the general opinion was the question was valid (and chipped in as well), but maybe we're being too lax here.
    – stafusa
    Oct 7 at 6:04
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OK, in some cases, it is just like English:

(by the way, what I say re the past continuous (estava fazendo, applies to Iberian Portuguese forms: estava a fazer, too.)

  • I was sleeping when he arrived.

  • Eu estava dormindo quando ele chegou.

  • I was eating an apple when I choked.

  • Eu estava comendo uma maçã quando engasguei. [verb: engasgar].

In other words, one action is ongoing when another occurs. BUT the continuous past is used in both languages the same way: there is another thing that occurs or that is implied as occurring. So, if I say to you: O que que você estava fazendo? Is "What were you doing?" and in English and Portuguese there is another action or one implied such as "quando cheguei", "when I arrived".

Here's the issue:

  • Eu dormia muito durante os primeiros meses da pandemia.

That dormia means the action kept going in the past during the first months of the pandemic. It can be translated into English two ways:

  • I slept a lot during the first months of the pandemic. OR
  • I used to sleep a lot during the pandemic. [not great sounding in English here.

Let's try another one:

  • Eu dormia muito quando era estudante.

  • I slept a lot when I was a student. Or: I used to sleep a lot when I was a student.

The translation of the imperfect in Portuguese is either simple past or used to in English. That's what is tricky.

So, if you are still at the "translation stage" of thinking in English and then saying it in Portuguese, you have to decide if the verb means something that was or was not a once off.

  • I slept a lot when I was a teenager. If your meaning is I used to sleep, use Eu dormia muito quando era adolescente.
  • I slept a lot last month. Probably not "used to sleep" here, use: Eu dormi muito o mês pasado.

So when you think something with a simple past in English, think about whether the meaning you actually want to convey is: used to [verb].

You will get the hang of it in time.

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There are at moment already two solid general answers, but I miss a direct answer to your question:

So, when Im referring to a process from the past, such as in the dialogue “What were you doing - I was sleeping” would it be Eu dormia, Eu estava dormindo or Eu Dormir.

To which I'd say:

  • "Eu dormir." is not grammatical here
  • "Eu dormia." is possible in some dialects and contexts (see Artefacto's and Lambie's answers)
  • "Eu estava dormindo" is by far the most likely adequate translation.
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    Of course, eu dormir is not grammatical here. But, it could be in other situations. Você precisa dormir. Está muito cansado. Resposta: Eu, dormir?
    – Lambie
    Oct 7 at 15:00
  • @Lambie Sure, agreed, correction made. I wanted this to be a concise answer. Incidentally, I couldn't think of any straightforward example where "Eu dormir.", alone and without any extra punctuation, was correct — I only could come up with examples like yours (with a comma) or as part of a longer sentence (e.g., "Dê-me uma rede para eu dormir.". But while writing this comment I think I found one: "O que você não acredita que vai acontecer hoje à noite? — Eu dormir."
    – stafusa
    Oct 7 at 18:55
  • Stafusa, isn't "dormir" a noun? Similarly to "VOCÊS dormirem é dever, o nosso é cuidarmos de vocês". I ain't sure, though you can add an article, as in "a Mariazinha dormir é o axioma da irrealidade motor". Sorry if I intruded.
    – Schilive
    Oct 8 at 6:37
  • Hi @Schilive welcome. :) My "análise sintática" is rusty, but I understand "dormir" is still a verb, but part of a "oração substantiva". And in your example with the article I'd see the "a" as belonging to "Mariazinha", not "dormir".
    – stafusa
    Oct 8 at 7:00
  • @stafusa, I didn't notice that the article was feminine, interesting. Here is another: "o dormirmos é a nossa orientação médica." I am not talking about this todamateria.com.br/oracoes-reduzidas, by the way. My "análise sintática" is also not very good, and I am probably wrong and it is something obvious.
    – Schilive
    Oct 8 at 17:39
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You can look at the answers here for more general considerations, but as to your particular question:

So, when Im referring to a process from the past, such as in the dialogue “What were you doing - I was sleeping” would it be Eu dormia, Eu estava dormindo or Eu [dormi].

The response goes hand in hand with the question, that is, the same tense tends to be used in both. So we should first explore our options for the question. What were you doing? can be translated in two ways (I'm using estar a fazer and estar fazendo interchangeably):

Que estavas fazendo/a fazer?
Estava lavando/a lavar a roupa.

There needs to be a past temporal reference here, either implied or explicit (such as agora mesmo or nessa altura / quando ela chegou). The meaning is that at the reference time (which is more commonly a point in time, but can also be an interval), the action in question was ongoing. It likely started before the time of reference and continued after it.

Another, less likely, option is:

Que estiveste fazendo/a fazer?
Estive lavando/a lavar a roupa.

In this case, there is also a time of reference in the past, but it's an interval, and the action is restricted to that interval. It ended past that interval.

If the interval of reference is starting somewhere in the past and ending recently, this could be translated by what have you been doing (though perhaps que tens estado fazendo/a fazer is a better translation for the more likely interpretation of that English sentence). The difference between estava and estive for an implicit recent time reference is that estava is the only one for which this reference can be just now. Say you surprise someone and see them hiding something or looking suspicious. You'd ask que estavas fazendo?. OTOH, if you see a kid with dirt all over, but you don't know exactly when the corresponding activity took place, you'd ask que estiveste fazendo?.

If the question is what were you doing yesterday the whole day?, then, que estiveste fazendo/a fazer ontem o dia todo? is a possible translation, but not que tens estado a fazer ontem o dia todo, nor que estavas a fazer ontem o dia todo.

Finally, the imperfect can also be used to express the same temporal relationships as the progressive past, but this is less common or borderline impossible with eventive predicates (esp. without temporal adjuncts). Que fazias? to mean what were you doing just now? is not an option; que fazias no sótão às três da manhã? is OK, with only subtle changes in meaning from que estavas a fazer. However, like in English, for certain stative predicates the past continuous cannot be used:

Tinha seis anos quando o conheci. (not estava tendo)

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  • With respect to the last paragraph, I could also easily say "O que você ficou fazendo ontem o dia todo?" ou até "O que você fez ontem o dia todo?".
    – stafusa
    Oct 6 at 19:45
  • @stafusa right, I was thinking between the other options I had given. I've tried to make it clearer
    – Artefacto
    Oct 6 at 22:58
  • Unfortunately, the part you left out is that the continuous implies a simple past. And estar a fazer etc, is really Iberian Portuguese, which is great of course, but the OP is talking about Brazilian Portuguese. "O que estavas fazendo?" [quando etc. declarado o implícito.] And actually that goes for Que estavas à fazer" [quando não-que-o-que]
    – Lambie
    Oct 7 at 14:59
  • @Lambie Sorry besides the fazendo/a fazer comment, I didn't get your other points. What do you mean the "continuous implies a simple past"? And at the end are you complaining about que vs o que (if so, they are equivalent in this context)?
    – Artefacto
    Oct 7 at 15:15
  • Se você diz: Eu estava fazendo x. Sempre implica uma outra ação acabada. Já dei tantos exemplos. Eis um outro: "O que que você estava fazendo agora"? [quando eu te chamei]. O continuo vem acompanhado de outra coisa no pretérito. Essa coisa (ação ou estado) pode ser implícita em termos da situação ou pode ser dita: Eles estavam conversando na cozinha quando o telefono tocou. ///Ficou más claro?
    – Lambie
    Oct 7 at 17:11

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