Past habits: 'used to', 'would' and the past simple

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

Average: 4.2 (69 votes)

Hello Sokhomkim,

Yes, I see what you mean. The past simple doesn't give us any information about the present. It's not impossible for something that we did in the past to also be true now. For example, perhaps we did something regularly when we were younger, then stopped it for some years, and now do it again. But normally adverbials or context would make the meaning clear.

The two sentences you ask about mean the same thing. Perhaps the 'used to' form puts a little more emphasis on the activity as a habit, but only just slightly. They have the same meaning otherwise.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Ulk on Tue, 26/09/2023 - 17:36

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Hello team, recently I’ve come across a difference between would and used to which is not highlighted in your article. It’s about time frame, it goes like that :
'Would' only talks about past habits when the time frame is specified in the sentence.
'Used to' talks about routine actions in the past but we are not sharing the specific time frame
Could you please comment on that?
So for ex. in the phrase ‘ She would always help me whenever I had a problem ‘ only would is possible? I can’t say ‘ She used to help me whenever I had a problem’ ?

Another question concerns the difference between state and action verbs with Used to and Would
First of all is it right that in the sentence ‘I used to smoke heavily when I was at university’ we can’t use would because ‘smoke’ here is a state ?
If so, am I right to think that these verbs can also be used both with would and used to depending on their ‘action’ or ‘stative’ meaning ?
1. -I used to enjoy English as a school girl ( enjoy = like- state, no would)
- I would/ used to enjoy studying English as a school girl ( action)

2. -In summers when my nephew came to visit I would / used to teach him how to swim. ( action)
- I used to teach at Halston University ( state, no would)

3. But what about ‘wear’, can it also be both a state and action verb? Or should I only use ‘put on’ in the 2nd example with ties?
- She used to wear glasses in high school ( state, no would)
- He loved ties. Every time I met him at parties he would / used to wear a different one. ( action )
Thank you

Hello Ulk,

I don't know any rule like that and it doesn't hold up with your examples. For example:

So for ex. in the phrase ‘ She would always help me whenever I had a problem ‘ only would is possible? I can’t say ‘ She used to help me whenever I had a problem’ ?

Both sentences are fine here. There's no reason why you can't use 'used to'.


First of all is it right that in the sentence ‘I used to smoke heavily when I was at university’ we can’t use would because ‘smoke’ here is a state ?

That depends. If by 'smoke' you mean 'be a smoker' then it is a state. However, you could also think of it as an action. For example:

Sherlock Holmes would smoke a pipe whenever he needed to think particularly hard about a problem.

 

If so, am I right to think that these verbs can also be used both with would and used to depending on their ‘action’ or ‘stative’ meaning ?
1. -I used to enjoy English as a school girl ( enjoy = like- state, no would)
- I would/ used to enjoy studying English as a school girl ( action) 

I think it's extremely unlikely to use 'enjoy' this way. It would imply some kind of choice (you choose to perform an action) rather than an emotion.

2. -In summers when my nephew came to visit I would / used to teach him how to swim. ( action)
- I used to teach at Halston University ( state, no would)

Yes, these are OK.

3. But what about ‘wear’, can it also be both a state and action verb? Or should I only use ‘put on’ in the 2nd example with ties?
- She used to wear glasses in high school ( state, no would)
- He loved ties. Every time I met him at parties he would / used to wear a different one. ( action )

Yes, these are OK also. Here (in the second example) 'wear' is an action you choose to do, not a state.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thanks, Peter
So, in my sentence 'I used to teach at Halston University' we can't use 'would' just because it's a state and it has nothing to do with the absence of a time frame? and in case of action verb we can equally say " I would give evening classes for adults at Halston University'?

Hello again Ulk,

Yes, that's right. As long as giving evening classes was a habit and not just a single action then both 'used to' and 'would' are fine.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by DoraX on Fri, 11/08/2023 - 13:42

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Hello LearnTeam,
I would like to ask you why the simple past is correct in the following sentence: "As we watched a movie, the house started shaking." The action (watch a movie) had a duration, didn't it?
Can we apply the same in more contexts? For example " As I walked down the street, an accident happened."

Hello DoraX,

It's not incorrect to use the past simple like this but it is rather unusual, and the past progressive would be more likely to show an interrupted action / an action in progress.

The past simple is often used when the performance of one action causes another. For example: As I entered the kitchen, she put the kettle on. [implication: she put the kettle on because she thought I might want a cup of tea]. However, this is not the case in your example so I'm not sure why the author chose the past simple. You would need to ask the author what their intention was and what impression they wished to create.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish

Your point that it's not incorrect but it is rather unusual was very useful. The explanation with the use of the simple past was very interesting as well. I have surely understood that context plays the main role.That's all I wanted to know. Thanks a lot!