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

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Average: 4.1 (7 votes)

Submitted by Ankorr on Wed, 18/01/2023 - 07:59

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Hello Team,

Could you please help me with the following:
I came across quite an interesting sentence in the Cambridge Dictionary - "I completed my work just now and would be free tomorrow."

Why is "would" used in the second part of the sentence? Is it because of the sequence of tenses?

Thank you for your kind help!

Hello Ankorr,

Without knowing the broader context, I'm afraid it's difficult to make sense of the use of 'would' here. It could be, for example, that the person isn't free tomorrow, but for some other reason besides work. But that's just speculation on my part!

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Hello Kirk,

Thank you so much!

I do understand that the broader context would be of great help:) Unfortunately, the dictionary provided just a separate sentence as an example.

I just thought that in a simple sentence homogeneous verbs in one sentence should be in the same tense. Is that right?

Thank you!

Hi Ankorr,

Yes, I saw that the sentence was from the Corpus, but I'm afraid I don't have access to that either.

I'm not sure what you mean by 'homogeneous' verbs, but in 'I completed my work just now and would be free tomorrow', I can't see how 'would' could go in the same tense as 'completed' (*'I completed my work just now and was free tomorrow') because 'tomorrow' refers to a future time. Really 'I completed just now' refers to now and so the most likely form here would be 'and I'm free tomorrow'.

Hope that helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Sat, 17/12/2022 - 20:29

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Hello Team, Could you please help me? Which is correct in the following sentence? Why? I think both are OK!
- There (used to be - would be) a lot of tourists visiting Tall el-Amarna a long time ago.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

In this sentence, used to is correct and would is incorrect.

The reason is that while both used to and would can be used to describe habitual past actions (I used to visit my grandparents every weekend / I would visit my grandparents every weekend), only used to can be used to describe past states. Your sentence describes a past situation (state) rather than an action, so would is not possible.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

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

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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

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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!