what is the deal with the verb 'soler' because i've looked it up and it means 'to use to'? when i learned about different tenses at school my teacher said that the imperfect tense is for things that 'were' done or 'used to be' done so basically i'm confused about the usage of soler and also whether this definition of the imperfect tense is wrong, or simplified?
First, your dictionary isn’t wrong, but it’s not well explained.
A technical note before I begin: soler doesn’t exist on its on (as far as I know). You use it with other words to help express a particular meaning. It’s one of the few verbs in Spanish that can’t really exist on its own just as soler. Other verbs like it usually have a basic function and then a weird “verbal expression” in their secondary meanings like you’ll see below.
soler is used as a modal or an auxiliary verb, sometimes called a “helping verb”. All that means is that the verb is used to put the following verb into context, adding some nuance to what you’re supposed to take it as.
Think of “can”, “will” or “might” or “should” in English… they aren’t technically verbs that exist on their own except when the verb is understood like “I will (do it)”
The same is true of soler in that it flavors what you’re supposed to understand.
But soler is “to do with frequency” in the present tense, and “used to” in the imperfect tense… soler technically doesn’t exist in preterite.
In present tense, soler is “to do with frequency” or “to be in the habit of”
Suelo ir a la playa. = I go to the beach often.
No se suele decir eso. = They don’t usually say that too often.
Solemos hacerlo. = We normally do it.
Present tense soler is synonymous with normalmente, generalmente, por lo general and in the case of ir it might show up as a menudo, con frecuencia or the verb frecuentar “to frequent / to go often”
The se suele expression is very common in Spanish to express what “is done” by an impersonal “they”. It’s great for expressing societal norms like no se suele hacer eso “they don’t normally do that” or se suele hablar así “they usually talk that way”
You could just as easily use an adverb; normalmente no se hace “normally that isn’t done”, por lo general se habla así “generally they talk that way”
Imperfect tense refers to actions that are not yet completed, or it refers to actions that used to happen and may or may not still be happening.
Because there exists that kind of vagueness, a soler is sometimes used to clear it up in context:
Decía… = I was saying… [action not yet completed]
Decía… = I used to say… [action that used to happen]
Estaba diciendo… = I was saying [action not yet completed]
Solía decir… = I used to say… [action that used to happen]
Regular imperfect has both meanings.
The use of estar + gerund in imperfect is more emphatically an action not yet completed. And soler + infinitive is more emphatically “used to”
It’s not absolutely necessary to use soler but it does help when you’re trying to expressly state the idea is “used to”
Éramos amigos. = We were friends. / We used to be friends.
Solíamos ser amigos. = We used to be friends.
Llovía. = It was raining. / It used to rain.
Solía llover. = It used to rain.
Tenía muñecas. = I had dolls. / I used to have dolls.
Solía tener muñecas. = I used to have dolls.
Like I said, it’s not absolutely necessary because the imperfect tense can be used for it, but it helps when you’re trying to establish whether you’re trying to be understood as descriptive or narrative (“it was raining”) versus talking about how things used to be (”it used to rain”)
But it’s totally fine to be confused by soler at first since it’s an odd case for a verb in Spanish. Most of the verbs that would quality as auxiliary verbs in Spanish can exist on their own:
- tener = to have
tener que + infinitive = to have to (do something)
- ir = to go
ir a + infinitive = going to (do something)
- volver = to turn / to return
volver a + infinitive = to (do something) again
Not counting poder, querer, and deber which can be used all by themselves or with a verb in the infinitive.
And though you haven’t gotten there, poder and deber in the conditional tense are sometimes used as “might/could” and “should/ought to”, which adds to their helping verb status.