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

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Language level

B2 English level (upper intermediate)

Submitted by Ankorr on Tue, 06/09/2022 - 11:05

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Hello team,
I've come across an interesting usage of 'would' in one of the books I'm currently reading. Could you please help me understand why 'would' is used with stative verbs (have, be) here? Here is the extract: "Closer to home, I was doing catalogs, commercials, and showroom work.
It wasn’t glamorous, but it was work. The job was to show clothes to clients
of inexpensive department stores. I would have a little tiny cardboard
cubicle to change in, and then I’d come out. There would be thirty people
sitting there, watching me wear the clothes." The author describes repeated/habitual actions in the past. Is it really possible to use 'would' with stative verbs? Thank you so much for your kind help!

Hello Ankorr,

'Have' can describe actions as well as its core meaning of possession - think about 'have a coffee' or 'have a meeting'. In your example I think 'have' is not describing possession but use: 'We would have a little tiny cupboard cubicle...' does not mean 'We would own a tiny little cupboard cubicle...' but rather 'We used a tiny little cupboard cubicle...;

I read the second example ('there would be thirty people sitting there') as form of prediction/expectation in the past rather than habit or typical behaviour. You can see this if you try to replace 'would be' with 'used to be' - it changes the meaning quite clearly. In your example I think 'would'  functions in the same way 'will' can function with regard to the present or future: At an event like this people will be very friendly at first...

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Wasifhusain on Thu, 18/08/2022 - 14:33

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Hello Team,
Could you help me understand what is the meaning of 'would resurface' in the following sentence:
"The Taiwan issue was put on the backburner without making compromises on the goal of unification. The issue would resurface in 1995 when Taiwanese President Lee Tenghui visited Cornell University in the U.S."
Does it simply mean that 'the issue resurfaced' or some grammar nuances are involved in it?

Hi Wasifhusain,

Yes, right! There is a nuance, and it is related to the timeframe. Here, "would" is the past form of "will". By saying it this way ("The issue would resurface ..."), the action is viewed as an event that is in the future of the previously mentioned event ("put on the backburner"). This is often done when a writer is writing about some past events and wants to anticipate or foreshadow the consequences that they had. This is called future in the past and you can find a section about it on our Talking about the Past page (linked) if you would like to see more examples.

The writer could also have used the past simple ("the issue resurfaced") here. That sounds more like a simple telling of the events in the order that they happened, and it does not have the "anticipation of consequences" nuance.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by adribarretta on Wed, 03/08/2022 - 13:09

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Concerning the use of adverbs, do they have to go after would, with no exceptions? A sentence like:" We would visit NY often before we had children" is correct?

Hi adribarretta,

Actually, it depends on the particular adverb. "Always", for example, can only be positioned after "would" and before the main verb (e.g. "We would always visit NY ..."). But the position of other adverbs is more flexible. Here are some other possibilities for "often".

  • We would often visit NY ...
  • Often, we would visit NY ...

The basic meaning of the sentences is the same, but a speaker/writer might choose the second option if they wish to emphasise "often", for example.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by guachita on Wed, 20/07/2022 - 15:14

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Hello team I have 2 questions:
1. Is it correct to say 'I would like that A went to B' and if it is, why doy you use the past tense of the verb go?
2. what is the difference of 'getting to know' or 'know'?

Hi guachita,

1. Yes, it is correct. In this sentence, "went" is actually a form called the past subjunctive, which has the same form as the past simple. The past subjunctive doesn't mean the action happened in the past. It means that the action is unreal, improbable or impossible, and it refers to the present or future. ("I wish I were taller" is another example.)

Another way to say the same thing is "I would like A to go to B", which I think may be more commonly used than the subjunctive.

2. "Getting to know" indicates a process, i.e. something that is in the middle of happening. If I say "We are getting to know each other", for example, it means we are in the middle of it. We know each other to some extent, but not yet completely. On the other hand, if I say "We know each other", the action has already been completed and we know each other fully.

I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Ajay007 on Sun, 26/06/2022 - 15:20

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Hello,Sir I'm a new learner of yours

Submitted by harleenkaur5 on Mon, 30/05/2022 - 17:00

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Can you please explain the usage of would more?

In the lesson, it says it is used to tell stories.

But in the grammar test, would answer was wrong for the below sentence.

"During that time, I ___ to spend at least two hours in the gym every day."

The above sentence looks like a person telling his story. So please help me here.

Thanks in advance

Hello harleenkaur5,

On the page it doesn't quite say that would is used to tell stories.

Both 'would' and 'used to' are forms for talking about past habits - actions which were normal and typical but are no longer true. 'Used to' can also be used for past states which are no longer true. When you want to talk about a past habit you can use either 'would' or 'used to' and the information about highlights that 'would' is a little more formal and is more common in stories than it is in everyday speech.

'Would' is incorrect in the example you gave because there is 'to' after the gap. We follow 'would' with a base verb (would spend, not would to spend).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Anna Huong on Wed, 25/05/2022 - 23:35

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Hello!
Could you please advise me which I shoud use "would" or "used to" in this sentence?
I _______enjoy studying English when I was at shool.

Thank you.

Hello Anna Huong,

I'm afraid we don't provide answers for questions from other sources. We're happy to explain points of grammar or answer other questions about the language, but if we began simply giving answers to tasks we would end up doing our users' homework and tests for them, which is not our job!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by PavlaH on Tue, 03/05/2022 - 14:13

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Hello, could you please help me with this sentence?
How much money did you use to spend on books every month? OR How much money did you used to spend.....? It is correct in to use did you USE or did you USED in such questions?
Thanks a lot.

Hello PavlaH,

The correct form here is 'did you use to spend'. In other words, the affirmative is 'I used to spend', the negative is 'I didn't use to spend' and the interrogative is 'did you use to spend?'.

It might help to remember that when we write 'used to', it's spelled as a regular past simple verb: we say 'You picked up the ball', 'You didn't pick up the ball' (not *'You didn't picked up') and 'Did you pick up the ball?' (not *'Did you picked up').

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 29/03/2022 - 16:35

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Hello team. Could you please help me choose the correct answer? Explain, please.
- When I was young, as soon as I heard a voice, I (used to imitate - would imitate) it.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I'd say you could use both 'used to imitate' and 'would imitate' in this case. The phrase 'as soon as I heard a voice' indicates a specific kind of situation that we remember and so 'would' also works here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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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

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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

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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!

Hello Natasa Tanasa,

Yes, both of those are grammatically correct. Well done!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 24/11/2021 - 20:53

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Hello Team. Could you please help me? Is the following sentence correct using "would take"?
- During his school years, my father would take great interest in literature.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Not really. 'would' can be used to talk about past habitual actions, but taking an interest in literature isn't really a habitual action -- it's more of a mental state.

Now if by 'take great interest in literature' you mean, for example, that when a new literary novel was published your father performed certain kinds of actions -- for example, going to book signings or attending discussions of the novel -- then this sentence could work because the idea of taking great interest in literature refers more to actions than a mental state.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Wed, 24/11/2021 - 20:42

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Hello team. I'm confused. Could you please help me?
In No. 1, is it correct to use "always, usually, often" with "used to + infinitive"?
In No. 2, is it correct to use "once" with "used to do"?
1- He usually used to arrive late for the training sessions when he was a member in the team.
2- I once used to read the newspaper every day. Now I don't have the time.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

1. Yes, you can use those adverbs with 'used to' + infinitive. 'usually used to ...' is something I'd avoid in writing because of how it sounds, but I imagine you could hear people say that in informal situations.

2. It's a little unusual to use 'once' because it essentially communicates the same idea as 'used to do', but I'm not sure I'd say it's wrong. But I would avoid using both together.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hmawe Theint on Fri, 15/10/2021 - 10:28

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What is the difference between I'm used to going and I'm getting used to going?

Hello Hmawe Theint,

'I'm used to going' expresses a state -- the state of being familiar with going -- and 'I'm getting used to going' expresses a process of becoming familiar with going.

Most of the time, we get used to something before we are used to it. For example, in March 2020 my children were getting used to doing their schoolwork from home. By the end of April 2020, they were used to doing their schoolwork at home.

I hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Peter Piper on Tue, 28/09/2021 - 08:55

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Hello everyone, it is about Grammar test 2 Past Habits: why in this sentence:”During that time I USED TO LIKE to spend at least two hours in the gym every day” the correct answer is ”used to like ” instead of ”would like”? I ask you that because in the explanation of using these two expression they say ”We can use would to talk about repeated past actions that don't happen any more.” and in this sentence above there is a repetead action: ”every day” which was in the past: ”during that time”. And the next sentence: ”In my first year at University I WOULD RUN for an hour every morning before breakfast” has the correct answer ”Would run” though the conditions are the same like in the first sentence: repeated action, in the past, doesn't happen any more. Thank you so much for you answer

Hi Peter Piper,

Good question. It's because in that sentence, used to directly describes like, and like is a state, not an action. Used to is for past states or actions but would is for past actions only, so that's why would isn't correct in that sentence.

However, using would, we could say this: During that time I would spend at least two hours in the gym every day (spend = action).

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by wasan0909 on Mon, 22/03/2021 - 21:35

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-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

Submitted by Ice12345 on Wed, 10/03/2021 - 00:24

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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

Submitted by Zuu on Thu, 25/02/2021 - 15:12

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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".
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Submitted by Jonathan R on Fri, 26/02/2021 - 13:53

In reply to by Zuu

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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

Submitted by jfais on Fri, 12/02/2021 - 16:13

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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

Submitted by Ariyan Hozouri on Fri, 18/12/2020 - 12:13

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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?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 20/12/2020 - 08:03

In reply to by Ariyan Hozouri

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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

Submitted by Mustafa Abdulhai on Sat, 28/11/2020 - 19:22

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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

Submitted by lenniva on Fri, 23/10/2020 - 21:30

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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?
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Submitted by Peter M. on Sun, 25/10/2020 - 07:46

In reply to by lenniva

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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