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)

Hello Ahmed Imam,

1. Yes, you can use those adverbs with 'used to' + infinitive. 'usually used to ...' is something I'd avoid in writing because of how it sounds, but I imagine you could hear people say that in informal situations.

2. It's a little unusual to use 'once' because it essentially communicates the same idea as 'used to do', but I'm not sure I'd say it's wrong. But I would avoid using both together.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Hmawe Theint on Fri, 15/10/2021 - 10:28

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What is the difference between I'm used to going and I'm getting used to going?

Hello Hmawe Theint,

'I'm used to going' expresses a state -- the state of being familiar with going -- and 'I'm getting used to going' expresses a process of becoming familiar with going.

Most of the time, we get used to something before we are used to it. For example, in March 2020 my children were getting used to doing their schoolwork from home. By the end of April 2020, they were used to doing their schoolwork at home.

I hope this helps.

All the best,
Kirk
The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Peter Piper on Tue, 28/09/2021 - 08:55

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Hello everyone, it is about Grammar test 2 Past Habits: why in this sentence:”During that time I USED TO LIKE to spend at least two hours in the gym every day” the correct answer is ”used to like ” instead of ”would like”? I ask you that because in the explanation of using these two expression they say ”We can use would to talk about repeated past actions that don't happen any more.” and in this sentence above there is a repetead action: ”every day” which was in the past: ”during that time”. And the next sentence: ”In my first year at University I WOULD RUN for an hour every morning before breakfast” has the correct answer ”Would run” though the conditions are the same like in the first sentence: repeated action, in the past, doesn't happen any more. Thank you so much for you answer

Hi Peter Piper,

Good question. It's because in that sentence, used to directly describes like, and like is a state, not an action. Used to is for past states or actions but would is for past actions only, so that's why would isn't correct in that sentence.

However, using would, we could say this: During that time I would spend at least two hours in the gym every day (spend = action).

Does that make sense?

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by wasan0909 on Mon, 22/03/2021 - 21:35

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-I used to wake up for school every morning -I went to a museum with my girlfriend last week -I would eat fruits every after non when I was in collage

Submitted by Ice12345 on Wed, 10/03/2021 - 00:24

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Hello. It’s said that “would” can only be used with action verbs in the past. And I search the verb “live” on Google it says “live” is also an action verb. But still I cannot use this verb like “I would live in NY”. I must instead say “I used to live”. Why is it so? Can anybody explain?Thanks.

Hello Ice12345, 

Context is very important. When we use live to mean 'have a home in a place' it describes a state rather than an action. We can use it with continuous aspect when it is a temporary state (I'm living in Tokyo at the moment) but not with would for past habit.

 

We can use live with other meanings. For example, you can use live on to mean 'subsist' or 'maintain yourself':

He lived on rice and beans.

With this meaning, both would and used to are possible.

 

How a word is used (with which meaning) is key, and that is why context is so important.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Zuu on Thu, 25/02/2021 - 15:12

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Hello I can't quite understand why I have to use "used to like" instead of "would like" in the sentence," During that time, I ___ to spend at least two hours in the gym every day." In above sentence, I think the sentence is supposed to tell repeated action "every day".
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Submitted by Jonathan R on Fri, 26/02/2021 - 13:53

In reply to by Zuu

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Hi Zuu,

Good question! You could say: I would spend at least two hours ... . But I would like to spend ... doesn't work, because 'would like' has a different meaning. It's used for requesting or offering (e.g. I'd like a coffee / Would you like some coffee?), not for past repeated actions.

Best wishes,

Jonathan

The LearnEnglish Team