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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

-I used to wake up for school every morning
-I went to a museum with my girlfriend last week
-I would eat fruits every after non when I was in collage

Hello. It’s said that “would” can only be used with action verbs in the past. And I search the verb “live” on Google it says “live” is also an action verb. But still I cannot use this verb like “I would live in NY”. I must instead say “I used to live”. Why is it so? Can anybody explain?Thanks.

Hello Ice12345, 

Context is very important. When we use live to mean 'have a home in a place' it describes a state rather than an action. We can use it with continuous aspect when it is a temporary state (I'm living in Tokyo at the moment) but not with would for past habit.

 

We can use live with other meanings. For example, you can use live on to mean 'subsist' or 'maintain yourself':

He lived on rice and beans.

With this meaning, both would and used to are possible.

 

How a word is used (with which meaning) is key, and that is why context is so important.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello

I can't quite understand why I have to use "used to like" instead of "would like" in the sentence," During that time, I ___ to spend at least two hours in the gym every day."
In above sentence, I think the sentence is supposed to tell repeated action "every day".

Hi Zuu,

Good question! You could say: I would spend at least two hours ... . But I would like to spend ... doesn't work, because 'would like' has a different meaning. It's used for requesting or offering (e.g. I'd like a coffee / Would you like some coffee?), not for past repeated actions.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

I'm confused about "Also, the past simple doesn't make it so clear that the thing is no longer true.".
Doesn't that contradict the Grammar Explanation section that gives this form as a way to express that something is no longer true?

Hi jfais,

I'll try to explain :) The past simple doesn't contradict the 'no longer true' meaning. It's just that, in comparison, used to and would show that meaning more clearly and prominently than the past simple does. The past simple has various other meanings too, while used to has pretty much only this meaning, so if a speaker or writer wanted to emphasise the 'no longer true' idea and draw the listener/reader's attention to it, used to (and would) are better choices than the past simple. They convey that meaning more clearly and less ambiguously.

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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?

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