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)
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Submitted by a man learning on Wed, 12/06/2024 - 09:44

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Sorry, how to express a past habit that still continue 'til now? Thanks a lot

Hello a man learning,

It might not work in all situations, but if you started doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu 10 years ago and are still doing it now, you could use the present perfect continuous: 'I've been doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu for 10 years'.

If you had something else in mind, please feel free to describe it to us.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Submitted by Ama1 on Mon, 06/05/2024 - 12:39

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Hi
In the exercise "Grammar test 2" :
1- In the question "During that time, I ___ to spend at least two hours in the gym every day."
I don't understand why "would like" is wrong since it's an action that was repeated every day.


2- In the question "I ___ three eggs with toast and fruit for breakfast." for me the two answers proposed are correct, it can be an action taken without repetition over time (only once) or it can be an action which is repeated at each "breakfast" in the past.

If I can add a suggestion, I think it would be good if you added, for example, a tooltip or something else in the exercises "not only on this course but all your courses" to explain why this answer is correct and not another like that "we use Used to because we are talking about past states....." or "we use Would because we are talking about past repeated actions....."
Also that we can use in such a sentence "Used to and Would" but not in this sentence because this because that.


THANKS.

Hello  Ama1,

The verb in the first example you quote is like and this is a verb which describes an emotion rather than an action. Would can only be used for habiltial actions, not states or emotions, and so used to like is needed.

I think your second point is a good one. You can indeed use either have had or used to have in this sentence. The meaning is different: have had describes your breakfast in the very recent past, while used to have describes a habitual action in the past, as you say. Well spotted.

 

I'll pass on your tooltip suggestion. I'm not sure it will be possible for existing material but perhaps we can include it in future exercises.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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Submitted by Ayaka amani on Sat, 04/05/2024 - 09:49

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I want to ask if this sentence is simple past or not "The crow eats the snails, then it flapped its wings". 

And if this tense is past then why we put the word "eats" instead of "ate"

Kindly explain it to me 

Hello Ayaka amani,

Although it's hard to be completely certain without knowing the full context, this does not look like a consistent use of tenses. I can't think of why the tenses would change like this. Using all past forms is common in narratives, so ate... flapped is likely, though it is possible to use present forms in anecdotes and informal storytelling to add immediacy (eats... flaps).

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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.