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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?

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

Nivel de idioma

Upper intermediate: B2

Comments

Hello Sir,

Could you clarify my confusion it is in the following sentence.

During that time I would go to gym for 2 hours everyday.
But the correct answer is ‘used to’ in same sentence like during that time I used to like to go gym for 2 hours everyday.

As far as I am concerned if ‘would’ can be used in repeated action in the past, both used to and would are interchangeable. But the correct answer is used to instead of would.

Hello Ujin,

Here the trick is that 'would like' has a special meaning in English. We use it to make polite requests -- it's essentially a more polite way of saying 'I want'.

We don't use 'would' with 'like' to talk about repeated past actions. We could say 'I used to go to the gym' or 'I would go to the gym', but notice that here I have not used the verb 'like'. To express that I liked going to the gym, you can't use 'would like' -- instead you can use the past simple ('I liked going') or 'used to' ('I used to like to go').

Does that make sense?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello! I got confused about what's the correct way to say "In the past when I would misgender somebody, I would freak out". Should I use "would" in both parts of the sentence?
Thank you in advance!

Can we say "she would smoke but she gave up a few years ago."?

Hello PeteG

In a specific context, that would be correct. What is the situation or meaning that you have in mind?

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

It's really interesting.

Dear sir,

May I know why the answer for the question below is "didn't use to get" instead of "wouldn't get"?
But Dad ___ angry because he had done the same when he was a kid.

Hello wcyam10

This is a somewhat grey area. To me and to other native speakers I have asked, it sounds strange to use 'wouldn't get' here, but as far as I can tell, there is no strict rule against using it here. This is why the grammar explanation above says we don't normally use 'would' in the negative in this way. 

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

The topics of the portal have good information, present their proper use and structures to facilitate their understanding. This tests help a lot to practice the topics and see where we have failures.