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Past habits – 'used to', 'would' and the past simple

Do you know how to talk about past habits using used to, would and the past simple?

Look at these examples to see how used to, would and the past simple are used.

They used to live in London.
I didn't use to like olives.
We would always go to the seaside for our holidays.
But one holiday we went to the mountains instead.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Past habits: Grammar test 1

Grammar explanation

When we talk about things in the past that are not true any more, we can do it in different ways.

Used to + infinitive

We can use used to to talk about past states that are not true any more.

We used to live in New York when I was a kid.
There didn't use to be a supermarket there. When did it open?
Did you use to have a garden?

We can also use used to to talk about past habits (repeated past actions) that don't happen any more.

I used to go swimming every Thursday when I was at school.
She used to smoke but she gave up a few years ago.

used to + infinitive should not be confused with be/get used to + -ing, which has a different meaning. The difference is covered here.

Would

We can use would to talk about repeated past actions that don't happen any more.

Every Saturday I would go on a long bike ride.
My dad would read me amazing stories every night at bedtime.

would for past habits is slightly more formal than used to. It is often used in stories. We don't normally use the negative or question form of would for past habits. Note that we can't usually use would to talk about past states. 

Past simple

We can always use the past simple as an alternative to used to or would to talk about past states or habits. The main difference is that the past simple doesn't emphasise the repeated or continuous nature of the action or situation. Also, the past simple doesn't make it so clear that the thing is no longer true.

We went to the same beach every summer.
We used to go to the same beach every summer.
We would go to the same beach every summer.

If something happened only once, we must use the past simple.

I went to Egypt in 2014. 

Do this exercise to test your grammar again.

Grammar test 2

Past habits: Grammar test 2

Language level

Upper intermediate: B2

Comments

What would Faten do to help her mother?
Here we use the question form of would with the simple past
Is it correct?

Hello Aaxz,

The verb here is would + base form [would do] followed by an infinitive of purpose [to help]. There is no past form here.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Could you clarify for me the meaning of this sentence has been made.

Did I use to have garden ?
I have a doubt about the "have" word in sentence mentioned.

Hello Karan Narang,

We use used to (didn't use to) to describe habits or situations which were true in the past but are no longer true. If a person had a garden in the past and no longer has one then it is quite possible to say this:

Did you use to have a garden?

I'm not sure it's very likely that a person would ask about themselves, however. It would suggest they can't remember their own life, which is possible but unlikely.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Sir,

Could you clarify my confusion it is in the following sentence.

During that time I would go to gym for 2 hours everyday.
But the correct answer is ‘used to’ in same sentence like during that time I used to like to go gym for 2 hours everyday.

As far as I am concerned if ‘would’ can be used in repeated action in the past, both used to and would are interchangeable. But the correct answer is used to instead of would.

Hello Ujin,

Here the trick is that 'would like' has a special meaning in English. We use it to make polite requests -- it's essentially a more polite way of saying 'I want'.

We don't use 'would' with 'like' to talk about repeated past actions. We could say 'I used to go to the gym' or 'I would go to the gym', but notice that here I have not used the verb 'like'. To express that I liked going to the gym, you can't use 'would like' -- instead you can use the past simple ('I liked going') or 'used to' ('I used to like to go').

Does that make sense?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you for your kind advice.

Hello! I got confused about what's the correct way to say "In the past when I would misgender somebody, I would freak out". Should I use "would" in both parts of the sentence?
Thank you in advance!

Hi biggkush,

Yes, that's fine!

There may be some redundancy by using 'would' in both clauses, since 'when' already shows that the two actions happened together. I think both of these sentences have the same meaning as yours:

- When I misgendered somebody, I would freak out.
- When I would misgender somebody, I freaked out.

I'd say these all mean the same thing.

Best wishes,

Jonathan
The LearnEnglish Team

Can we say "she would smoke but she gave up a few years ago."?

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