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? Test what you know with interactive exercises and read the explanation to help you.

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

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Average: 3 (2 votes)
Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 16:10

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Hello Team. Could you please help me? If the following sentence is correct, does it express a past habit?
- I would do fitness training.
Thank you

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I answered this question in my answer to your comment just below (26/03/2022 - 08:17).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 16:06

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Hello Team. Could you please tell me and explain whether the following sentence is correct or not? Why?
- In the past, more people would do manual work.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both 'used to' and 'would' can be used to speak about repeated actions and events in the past (e.g. while remembering what I did in the summer when I was young, 'I would do fitness training every morning' = 'I used to fitness training every morning').

Note, however, that we only use 'used to' (not 'would') to speak about past states (e.g. we can say 'I used to have weights', but not *'I would have weights' because 'have' is stative).

But when we talk about past habits that were general throughout the past -- in other words, when we're not referring to a specific time period, such as 'when I was young' or 'when I was a student', etc. -- we don't use 'would' and use 'used to' instead. In the fitness training example I gave before, doing fitness training was not something I did my whole life -- I'm thinking about the summer, i.e. a specific time period. Since I'm thinking of a specific, non-generalized time period in the past, both 'would' and 'used to' are possible.

But 'In the past, more people would do manual work' is not speaking about a specific period of time -- it's quite general. In cases such as this one, we don't use 'would' to refer to past habits. It's as if we use 'would' when we're remembering a specific time with nostalgia, like a period in our life; here, we're making a historical or sociological statement that doesn't seem to be connected to our experience at all.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user aymanme2

Submitted by aymanme2 on Wed, 09/03/2022 - 01:21

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Hi, sirs.
I'd like to know your opinion concerning this question:
Before he retired, he ___play for Liverpool.
A] used to
B] would

I see both work as they express a past repeated action.

Hello aymanme2,

Only A is correct here. While it's true that 'would' can be used to speak about past states or habits, playing for a football club isn't presented as a past state or habit in this case due to the clause 'Before he retired'. It presents his playing as something that is no longer true.

Here I'd say the best form is actually 'he played for Liverpool' because the clause 'Before he retired' already clearly shows that he no longer plays football. But 'used to play' is fine.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks a lot, sir.
Yet, I'd like to make sure that I understand.

Both 'used to & would' represent events or actions that are no longer true or taking place, right?
Is 'would' not OK for the use of time clause?
What about this sentence?
When I was young I 'used to / would' go fishing with my dad.

Pardon me, I need more clarification if you please.

Hello again aymanme2,

Yes, both 'used to' and 'would' can be used to speak about repeated actions and events in the past (e.g. while remembering what I did in the summer when I was young, 'I would go fishing with my dad' = 'I used to go fishing with my dad').

But we only use 'used to' (not 'would') to speak about past states (e.g. we can say 'I used to have a rowboat', but not *'I would have a rowboat' because 'have' is stative).

When we talk about past habits that were general throughout the past, though, we don't use 'would' and use 'used to' instead. In the fishing example I gave before, fishing with my dad was not something I did all year long, it was only for specific time periods, a few weeks each summer for a few years. Since I'm thinking of a specific, non-generalized time period in the past, both 'would' and 'used to' are possible.

But if I'm thinking about how I was a serious football player when I was young -- something I did all year for many years -- 'would' is not correct. I can say 'I used to play football' but not *'I would play football'.

Another example would be someone who smoked cigarettes regularly in the past but now does not. She could say 'I used to smoke', but not 'I would smoke' to speak about her habit. Though she could say 'I would smoke when I was studying for exams' because that's a specific situation that repeated in the past but was not all the time.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Natasa Tanasa on Tue, 30/11/2021 - 10:45

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Hello everyone!

Is it correct to say:

"She would get used to wearing contact lenses if she tried to"
and
"They couldn't get used to living in a flat..."?

Thank you so much in advance!

Best regard!