Perfect Your Spanish Imperfect Tense with This Cool Trick

Past actions happened in the past. Duh. But not all past actions are equal, not in Spanish at least. The event in question could have been a one-time affair that concluded in the past without any ambiguity. Or it could be one that went on for a while with no assurance of completion, e.g., a habitual or continuous action. The two situations call for two different sets of conjugation in Spanish. While the first warrants a preterite, the second is what we call an imperfect tense action. One easy way to determine if a sentence qualifies for the imperfect tense is to see if you can rephrase it using would or used to. See the following example:

I went to school.

The above sentence is quite ambiguous. It could mean I went to school once for some work, or it could indicate a routine action from when I was a kid. Depending on the context, if you could rephrase the same sentence with a would, it would be good for an imperfect tense conjugation:

I would go to school everyday.

I used to go to school everyday.

Although not all the time, this little test should work most of the times. So to summarize, actions in the imperfect tense are either routine or incomplete. Or both.

Let’s Reinforce It Further

As I said before, if it takes a would or used to, it’s most likely in the imperfect tense. Despite this bulletproof test, some situations might have you stumped at times. So, here’s a couple of examples to drive home the concept:

Iba a Harvard (I went to Harvard).

María no estaba bien (Maria was not well).

Comía tacos todos los días (She ate tacos everyday).

Mi mamá me manejaba con frecuencia a la playa (My mother often drove me to the beach).

You can see each of these examples involve actions that are either repetitive or incomplete. The repetition need not be at a uniform frequency. All that matters is that it’s happening more than once and there’s no reason to believe it won’t happen again. Some of you might feel a bit funny about the second example in the above list. That’s not a habitual action, is it? Not even a repetitive event! Then what makes it imperfect? Well, there are two things that make it an imperfect tense instead of preterite. First of all, Maria was not well and we don’t know if she continues to be unwell as we speak. There’s no concrete evidence of her getting better later; ergo, the action is incomplete. The other thing is that Maria wasn’t unwell for an instant. She continued to be unwell for a while (and probably still does, going by the sentence). That makes it a continuous action, another ground for imperfect conjugation.

Before we touch upon the promised trick, it’s important to first review what this conjugation looks like. If you look closely, the pattern is a reminder of any conjugation you have studied until now. The difference is certain but minimal. See for yourself:

Imperfect Conjugation for “-ar” Verbs

This example uses the verb “cantar” for illustration.
Person Verb Explanation
yo cantaba I (used to) sing
cantabas you (used to) sing
él/ella/Usted cantaba he/she/you (used to) sing
nosotros cantabamos we (used to) sing
ello/ella/Ustedes cantaban they (used to) sing

As always, “-er” and “-ir” verbs conjugate in a style of their own. The pattern is still not completely off and you can still see hints of the present indicative tense conjugation in it:

Imperfect Conjugation for “-er” Verbs

This example uses the verb “beber” for illustration.
Person Verb Explanation
yo bebía I (used to) drink
bebías you (used to) drink
él/ella/Usted bebía he/she/you (used to) drink
nosotros bebíamos we (used to) drink
ello/ella/Ustedes bebían they (used to) drink

So, there’s two things we’ve got to commit to our memory. First is the rule that the Spanish imperfect tense is only used for incomplete, repetitive, or habitual actions. And the second thing is those conjugation patterns we just saw above. Now that we have established the challenge, it should be much easier to work toward nailing it. Don’t worry, this will not take you more than a few minutes and once through, you will remember everything about this tense for the rest of your life.

The Caveat

Yes, there’s a little prerequisite to this trick. Don’t worry, it’s nothing you can’t afford. No blood of a virgin needed here. All you need for this trick to work is to have your present indicative conjugation down. And by down, I mean knowing it like the proverbial back of your hand. Knowing present indicative verb-endings is important not only for the imperfect tense but even otherwise. That’s because it’s the pattern almost all other conjugations follow to varying degrees. The main reason it’s particularly indispensable here is that the trick I am going to offer does not help you with the pattern but only with the first-person singular starting point.

In case you’re too lazy to read up the present indicative before proceeding, here’s the table for a quick reference:

Present Indicative Conjugation for “-ar” Verbs

This example uses the verb “cantar” for illustration.
Person Verb Explanation
yo canto I sing
cantas you sing
él/ella/Usted canta he/she/you sing
nosotros cantamos we sing
ello/ella/Ustedes cantan they sing

And here’s the same table for “-er” and “-ir” verbs:

Present Indicative Conjugation for “-er” Verbs

This example uses the verb “beber” for illustration.
Person Verb Explanation
yo bebo I drink
bebes you drink
él/ella/Usted bebe he/she/you drink
nosotros bebemos we drink
ello/ella/Ustedes beben they drink

Although I have given out the conjugation tables, I would still urge you to read up my post on the present indicative because that’s where I have discussed a cool trick to memorize it quickly. Go ahead, it won’t take more than 10 minutes, I promise.

Remember ABBA?

If you can recall the present indicative tense conjugation in a blink, you can do wonders with this trick. I call it the “ABBA trick” and you’ll soon see why. The idea is to help you remember the singular first-person form of the verb in the imperfect tense. Since that’s where any conjugation table starts, remembering that one word should lead you to the rest of the table easily. Here’s the charm:

When he was young, my dad lived in India and used to listen to ABBA everyday.

Shouldn’t be all that hard to visualize, I suppose. If you’re old enough, you would not only be familiar with ABBA but also remember how they ruled the nightclubs of the 80s. Before we even touch upon the mnemonic hidden in it, let’s first note the tense this sentence is in. It essentially epitomizes the tense we are trying to ace here – Past actions that were ongoing, incomplete, or habitual. Living in India, for example, is not a one-time event with a well-defined endpoint here. And listening to ABBA is a habitual action, again, with no confirmation on whether it stopped happening. So, just recalling this sentence will remind you of the rules of using the imperfect tense.

Let the 80s help you with the Spanish imperfect tense conjugations.
Thomas Mildner licensed cc by-sa 2.0

The next step is to recall the conjugation table itself. See the bits in red? Those are your keys. But aren’t there like 5 different verb-endings for each class of verb in the entire table? Like I said, this mnemonic is only to help you with the first conjugation of each verb class:

India – corresponds to -ía

ABBA – corresponds to -aba

That’s really all you ought to remember – India for all “-er” and “-ir” verbs and ABBA for all “-ar” verbs. If you can recall these endings (first-person singular in each case), you can easily extrapolate the rest of the tables following the pattern used by the simple present tense (or present indicative tense) conjugation.

For example, in the case of cantar, ABBA can lead you to cantaba, the imperfect-tense conjugation for the verb in the singular first-person form. If you know your present indicative endings, you would quite intuitively guess the singular second-person form to be cantabas. Similarly, cantabamos will come naturally to you without any hint, because you already know that the nosotros form takes some kind of a “-mos” ending in any tense. Just remember that the singular third-person ending is the exact same as that of the singular first-person. Thus, hablaba could mean I spoke or he spoke, she spoke, etc. depending on the context. The plural third-person takes an “-an” ending in most tenses which again makes guessing cantaban a matter of instinct.

Employing the same trick for “-er” and “-ir” verbs, you can get bebía from beber. Bebía can then lead you to bebías, beníamos, and others. No go ahead, play with a few verbs on your own and see if you have really aced this trick. If so, get yourself a cookie. If not, do see where you went wrong and also if you would be better off with a trick of your own. Do you have one up your sleeve already? If so, please do share with the community in the comments below!