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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

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

Hello Danodo,

We use would to describe typical behaviour in the past which is no longer true. It has a similar to used to, but can be used for actions and not states (used to can be used for either).

The past continuous can describe repeated actions, especially ones which are excessive or irritating in some way. The past simple can also describe repeated events if used with an adverb like always, but does not suggest excess or irritation.

 

I would explain your examples as follows:

 

They were always asking about that night

A repeated action in the past which the speaker might consider a little excessive or extreme.

They always asked about that night

A repeated action in the past.

I would tell them nothing

Habitual or repeated action which is no longer true.

I told them nothing

A single action in the past.

 

The differences here are not stark, other than the final example which is about a single event. The speaker has choices in terms of how they wish to present the action and what they choose to emphasise.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

hi dears
can you tell the correct answer and why?

The city ( didn't use to / used to ) have many more parks and gardens?

thanks

Please, can explain me how we can use. Would in recent past action like nowadays in webseries i have been seeing that they use would insted of had or have
For example- police officer asked to person what you have done with that person , man said i would push that person to give a path ,i forget the scene but would is used in that sentence so why and how we can get to know where we should use would or have/had
Because mostly we know use of would insted of used to .

Hello Rolpanizum123,

I'm afraid that use of would does not look correct to me as an answer to the police officer's question. An answer in the past simple would be appropriate, I expect:

What did you do to that person?

I pushed him so I could get past.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello, I have mistaken about using the word" used to like "for the past tense and using the "would like" since would like is used, when We can use would to talk about repeated past actions that don't happen any more and the question I have is choosing between two;

eg: During that time, I-------------to spend at least two hours in the gym every day.

Would like
Used to like

and therefore choosing Would like"Wrong"
and also choosing Used to like"right"

Since would like, We can use would to talk about repeated past actions that don't happen any more and the question is that, Why we would use " used to like" instead of "would like.

NIYOMUGABO Emmanuel English learning Team.

Hello NIYOMUGABO Emmanuel,

We don't normally use 'would' to speak about past states. This is not only true for 'like', but also for verbs such as 'have' or 'think'.

It might also be helpful to remember that 'would like' is an extremely commonly used verb phrase in English. When you see or hear it, the vast majority of the time it will be about expressing a wish.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

All the best,

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

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.

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