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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

Hi Peter
So if I am correct on this, to emphasis the nature of the habit of the action we use, used to and would? Isn't it?

Also for more formal sentences.

Furthermore, in the exams can we use both "used to'' and "would'' in the gaps?

What are more deferences in terms of stative and dynamic?

Hi Aryan Hozouri,

Yes, we use used to and would to describe habitual behaviour in the past which is no longer true. The difference is that while used to can be used for actions (dynamic verbs) and states (stative verbs), would can only be used for actions.

Exams should always accept any correct answer unless a particular form is specified or excluded in the rubric.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

As mentioned above, Past Simple doesn't emphasize the repeated nature of an action but then we see repetition in;
We went to the same beach every summer.
we have "every summer" this is expressing repetition. Could you explain further on this?

Hello Mustafa Abdulhai,

The past simple can describe repeated events, but it does not emphasise the repetition; the focus is on the action rather than its repeated nature. For example, if I was talking about my childhood and wanted to emphasise that an activity was repeated - for example, because it was extremely irritating - then I could use a continuous form:

Our holidays were so boring. We were just going to the same beach every summer. I hated that. Why didn't we do something different some time? Just once!

The simple form would not be incorrect here, but it would be a less emphatic way of expressing your irritation.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello!
Could you please help me understand why these sentences are marked as incorrect?
1. He would work as a journalist for a science magazine.
2. I would eat a lot of meat, but I prefer vegetarian food now.
The verbs EAT and WORK are not state verbs, so WHY?

Hello lenniva,

Both 'would' and 'used to' can describe past habitual actions, but only 'used to' can describe a past state.

Your first sentence describes a state: the state of being employed by a science magazine, not the action of writing an article. Work for here means 'be employed by', not 'do a job for'.

Your second sentence could be correct, depending on whether you are thinking of the act of eating or the state of being or not being a vegetarian. It's really a question of context, but the safest choice is 'used to' as it can be used in both contexts.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hi Peter :)

I'd like a little clarity on what is described as a "state". Something we feel and experiene rather than do??

I was writing a little story the other day about past habits.

"My family and I often used to go skiing in France. We'd ski all day and be absolutely knackered by the end of the week."

That felt right to me.. however being knackered is a state. As in we'd be knackered..

Is it because the repeated action left us knackered or am I just plain wrong and have solidified a "bad" habit into my speech.

Cheers

Rob

Hi Rob,

Thanks for the interesting question.

 

I don't think would is used here because the action is repeated. For example, you could say this:

We spent every summer with my grandparents. At first it was boring being in the country, but by the end of the summer we'd be sad to leave.

 

I think the correct answer is that in certain contexts we see feelings as processes rather than fixed states. It's similar to the use of progressive aspect with feelings in sentences like 'I was getting angry' or 'I was becoming frustrated'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you Peter :)

Much appreciated.

Hello,

I have a question on the difference in meaning between using 'would' and the 'past simple'. It is written that using the 'past simple' doesn't emphasise the 'repeated or continuous' aspect of the action or state. What then is the difference between the following:

They were always asking about that night
They always asked about that night

I would tell them nothing
I told them nothing

Many thanks

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