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: 4.3 (64 votes)

Submitted by Sokhomkim on Sat, 23/03/2024 - 23:59

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Hello, Sir!

I was wondering why"a" is correct:

I ........ wear glasses when I was at university. 

a. didn't use to

b. wouldn't

c. both are correct

I think "c" is correct because "wear" is used with continuou aspect as in the sentence "She was wearing a red dress when I met her." So, "wear" is a dynamic verb and should be grammartically correct when used with "would" discribing"past habit".

Thank you for your time. 

Hello Sokhomkim,

'Wear' can be a dynamic verb when it describes a choice, such as a decision to wear a particular item of clothing for a particular event. However, when we use 'wear' with glasses it describes whether or not a person needs glasses to correct their eyesight. It does not mean the physical act of having glasses on your face, but rather the medical condition which requires it. This person is telling us that their eyesight has got worse and that now they need glasses but at university they did not.

It's the same with other medical or physical conditions:

I didn't use to walk with a limp. [not would]

I used to suffer from migraines. [not would]

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Thu, 29/02/2024 - 09:17

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Hello Team. Could you please help me? Which one is correct or both? Please, could you use a simple language?

- He (would walk - used to walk) to work, but now he no longer does.

Thank you.

 

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both 'He would walk to work' and 'He used to walk to work' are correct. 

It's not incorrect to say 'He would walk to work but he no longer does' or 'He used to walk to work but no longer does', but these two sentences aren't very natural. This is because 'would walk' and 'used to walk' already include the idea that he doesn't do this anymore. So if you say 'but he no longer does', it's repeating an idea that has already been communicated.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Radioheady on Wed, 28/02/2024 - 05:27

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Hello, sir!

I was wondering if it is OK to put "would" in the sentence: "Harrison Ford _________ accept the strangest jobs before he became an actor". There's no context given in the textbook, and the given answer is "used to". But I personally find it OK to put "would". Does my thought hold any water?

Thanks for your time.
 

Hello Radioheady,

Yes, would is fine in that context. 'Accept' is not a stative verb and therefore both used to and would are possible to describe past habits.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhomkim on Sat, 13/01/2024 - 21:45

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Hello, Sir!
I was wondering if we can use the past simple to talk about past habits that don't do now. If we can, is the same as the present continuous?
1. I used to play football every Sunday when I was at school. (I don't play it now)
2. I played football every Sunday when I was at school. (Can it mean that I still play it now?)
3. I have been playing football every Sunday since I was at school. (Is it the same as sentence 2?)
Thank you for your time.