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: 3 (2 votes)

Submitted by Befml on Tue, 01/11/2022 - 08:27

Permalink

Good morning,
Could you please tell me if the following sentences are correct?
1 a. Our maths teacher always used to give us tests without any warning.(past habit)
b. Our maths teacher was always giving us tests without any warning. (past habit showing annoyance/criticism)

2 a. The caretaker generally opens up at about quarter to eight. (present habit)
b. The caretaker will generally open up at about quarter to eight. (present habit)

Are there any differences in meaning between the present simple and ‘will’ in these sentences?

3 a. My brother never left the house on time and he would always make me late for school.(past habit)
b. My brother never left the house on time and he was always making me late for school. (annoying past habit)

Thank you very much.

Hi Befml,

Yes, all these sentences are correct.

About 2a and 2b, they might be used in different contexts. If I want to talk about the caretaker's actions in a factual and objective way, I'd probably say 2a. Sentence 2b might also be intended with a factual meaning. But "will" in the sentence may suggest not just the simple doing of the action but the caretaker's willingness to do it. "Will" might also suggest that the speaker is predicting this, rather than stating it as a fact. As "will" has several meanings, it's hard to interpret without knowing the exact context in which the sentence is said but I hope that helps.

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

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

Permalink

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

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'?