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 Anna Huong on Wed, 25/05/2022 - 23:35

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Hello!
Could you please advise me which I shoud use "would" or "used to" in this sentence?
I _______enjoy studying English when I was at shool.

Thank you.

Hello Anna Huong,

I'm afraid we don't provide answers for questions from other sources. We're happy to explain points of grammar or answer other questions about the language, but if we began simply giving answers to tasks we would end up doing our users' homework and tests for them, which is not our job!

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by PavlaH on Tue, 03/05/2022 - 14:13

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Hello, could you please help me with this sentence?
How much money did you use to spend on books every month? OR How much money did you used to spend.....? It is correct in to use did you USE or did you USED in such questions?
Thanks a lot.

Hello PavlaH,

The correct form here is 'did you use to spend'. In other words, the affirmative is 'I used to spend', the negative is 'I didn't use to spend' and the interrogative is 'did you use to spend?'.

It might help to remember that when we write 'used to', it's spelled as a regular past simple verb: we say 'You picked up the ball', 'You didn't pick up the ball' (not *'You didn't picked up') and 'Did you pick up the ball?' (not *'Did you picked up').

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Tue, 29/03/2022 - 16:35

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Hello team. Could you please help me choose the correct answer? Explain, please.
- When I was young, as soon as I heard a voice, I (used to imitate - would imitate) it.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I'd say you could use both 'used to imitate' and 'would imitate' in this case. The phrase 'as soon as I heard a voice' indicates a specific kind of situation that we remember and so 'would' also works here.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 16:10

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Hello Team. Could you please help me? If the following sentence is correct, does it express a past habit?
- I would do fitness training.
Thank you

Hello Ahmed Imam,

I answered this question in my answer to your comment just below (26/03/2022 - 08:17).

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Profile picture for user Ahmed Imam

Submitted by Ahmed Imam on Fri, 25/03/2022 - 16:06

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Hello Team. Could you please tell me and explain whether the following sentence is correct or not? Why?
- In the past, more people would do manual work.
Thank you.

Hello Ahmed Imam,

Both 'used to' and 'would' can be used to speak about repeated actions and events in the past (e.g. while remembering what I did in the summer when I was young, 'I would do fitness training every morning' = 'I used to fitness training every morning').

Note, however, that we only use 'used to' (not 'would') to speak about past states (e.g. we can say 'I used to have weights', but not *'I would have weights' because 'have' is stative).

But when we talk about past habits that were general throughout the past -- in other words, when we're not referring to a specific time period, such as 'when I was young' or 'when I was a student', etc. -- we don't use 'would' and use 'used to' instead. In the fitness training example I gave before, doing fitness training was not something I did my whole life -- I'm thinking about the summer, i.e. a specific time period. Since I'm thinking of a specific, non-generalized time period in the past, both 'would' and 'used to' are possible.

But 'In the past, more people would do manual work' is not speaking about a specific period of time -- it's quite general. In cases such as this one, we don't use 'would' to refer to past habits. It's as if we use 'would' when we're remembering a specific time with nostalgia, like a period in our life; here, we're making a historical or sociological statement that doesn't seem to be connected to our experience at all.

Hope this helps you make sense of it.

Best wishes,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team