So what is this imperfect tense anyway?
Imperfect is the tense we invoke in Spanish whenever we are dealing with past actions that were either incomplete or repetitive; basically, anything that could otherwise be expressed into English with a “used to”. Here are some illustrations:
- I went to Yale (what I essentially mean here is that I used to go to Yale for my studies; a repetitive action)
- I was eating street food every day (I used to eat street food everyday; habitual action)
- Juan was sick (he was sick for an undefined period of time; hence, this can be considered an imperfect action like any other statement on feelings or state)
- We were returning when we saw Enrique (the act of returning is imperfect in nature because it’s incomplete)
- My father often drove me to school (my father used to drive me to school; a repetitive action regardless of its frequency)
- Every year, the entire family would come together on the Day of the Dead (This line, again, can be rendered using a “used to” and hence becomes a repetitive action)
Let’s now see how regular Spanish verbs conjugate in this tense. There are two sets of conjugations; one for the -ar verbs and the other for the -ir and -er verbs. The conjugations for the -ar verbs go first (using hablar for illustration):
-aba (hablaba I spoke/used to speak/was speaking)
-abas (hablabas you spoke/used to speak/were speaking)
-aba (hablaba he/she/it spoke/used to speak/was speaking)
-abamos (hablamos we spoke/used to speak/were speaking)
-aban (hablaban they spoke/used to speak/were speaking)
Here are the conjugations for the -er and -ir verbs (using comer for illustration):
-ía (comía I ate/used to eat/was eating)
-ías (comías you ate/used to eat/were eating)
-ía (comía he/she/it ate/used to eat/was eating)
-íamos (comíamos we ate/used to eat/were eating)
-ían (comían they ate/used to eat/were eating)
Now, while we are sure you have quite understood when this tense is exactly to be used, it’s remembering this usage and the associated conjugations that hurts the butt.
The prerequisites for the trick
There is no need to memorize the names of the many tenses you are going to use in Spanish just as there’s no need to remember which tense you are in when you say, “I wish I had eaten that hot dog.” Memorizing grammar terms and labels is the most unrewarding of all language learning activities and serve you absolutely no purpose unless you want to teach a grammar class or write a grammar test. What you should aim at, instead, is to learn to recall what word and conjugation to use depending on the scenario you are in regardless of what the conjugated form is labelled as.
Is it possible to trick your brain into recalling not only the conjugation tables listed above but also the fact that they are to be used only with habitual, repetitive, and continuous actions without cramming up anything? The answer is, yes, provided you already know your simple present tense like the back of your hand. Let’s review the simple present tense conjugations for a while before we get to the mnemonic. Here’s the table for -ar verbs using hablar:
-o (hablo I speak)
-as (hablas you speak)
-a (habla he/she/it speaks)
-amos (hablamos we speak)
-an (hablan they speak)
If you remember and can recall the simple present tense table in a blink, you can use the following mnemonic to cement the imperfect to your brain with absolute ease:
When my dad was young, he lived in India and used to listen to ABBA all day
Not that hard to visualize, is it? If you are familiar with ABBA, chances are you know how big they were back in the 80’s. Now, the first thing to note in this sentence is its tense; without any clue about what it’s called officially, you can instantly recognize that we are talking about habitual and repetitive actions in the past. My dad “used to” live in India and he “used to” listen to ABBA all day. So you know whenever we are dealing with such actions, this is the mnemonic to be invoked. No need to memorize that it’s called “imperfect tense” in grammar.
|Who knew ABBA could help you with Spanish grammar!|
Photo credit: Spensatron 5000 licensed CC BY 2.0
If you are now comfortable with the -ar verbs, take a look at the -ia ending in “India” which is in bold. This is a cue to the -ía ending in the singular first person conjugation of the -er and -ir verbs, e.g., vivía (I lived/used to live/was living) for vivir (to live) or ponía (I put/used to put/was putting) for poner (to put. Again, the rest of the table just follows the simple present tense conjugation pattern based on the -ía ending. Try playing with some verbs, like comer, beber, correr, conducir, crecer, subir, etc. If you still need some further reinforcement to this mnemonic, there is a popular Spanish song by the Latin pop group, Camila, just for that!