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

Do you need to improve your English grammar?
Join thousands of learners from around the world who are improving their English grammar with our online courses.
Average: 4.1 (7 votes)

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

Permalink

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

Permalink

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

Permalink

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

Permalink

Hello,Sir I'm a new learner of yours

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

Permalink

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