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: 4.3 (57 votes)
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Submitted by Radioheady on Wed, 28/02/2024 - 05:27

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Hello, sir!

I was wondering if it is OK to put "would" in the sentence: "Harrison Ford _________ accept the strangest jobs before he became an actor". There's no context given in the textbook, and the given answer is "used to". But I personally find it OK to put "would". Does my thought hold any water?

Thanks for your time.
 

Hello Radioheady,

Yes, would is fine in that context. 'Accept' is not a stative verb and therefore both used to and would are possible to describe past habits.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by Sokhomkim on Sat, 13/01/2024 - 21:45

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Hello, Sir!
I was wondering if we can use the past simple to talk about past habits that don't do now. If we can, is the same as the present continuous?
1. I used to play football every Sunday when I was at school. (I don't play it now)
2. I played football every Sunday when I was at school. (Can it mean that I still play it now?)
3. I have been playing football every Sunday since I was at school. (Is it the same as sentence 2?)
Thank you for your time.

Hello Sokhomkim,

There are no present continuous forms in any of those sentences! There is a present perfect continuous in the third sentence, however.

In terms of the meanings of the sentences, the first and second have the same meaning. The past simple (I played) can describe a single action or (with a phrase like every Sunday) repeated or habitual actions, so it can be used with the same meaning as used to.

The third sentence is different. The form here is present perfect continuous and it describes an action which began in the past (when the speaker was at school) and which has not ended. In other words, this sentence tells us that the speaker still plays football every Sunday.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Thank you very much, Sir.
In the lesson above, the past simple doesn't make it so clear that the thing is no longer true compared to "used to".
2. I played football every Sunday when I was at school. ( Is it possible that the situation in the sentence 2 is still true now? If so, I think it's similar to the present perfect continuous.
Thank you so much, Sir.

Hello Sokhomkim,

In 2, the phrase 'when I was at school' and the verb 'played' make it clear that the sentence is referring to the past. If the speaker still played football now, they wouldn't use this sentence -- instead they would use one like sentence 3. It would be incorrect to use sentence 2 if the speaker still plays football now.

It's true that the past simple is less specific than 'used to', but it's never used to refer to the present unless it has a hypothetical meaning. In sentences such as these, there is no hypothetical situation, so it clearly refers to a past time that is no longer true.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Thank you so much,Sir!
The last sentence in the lesson is written that "the past simple doesn't make it "so clear" that the thing is no longer true". So, I think it might be possible that the is still true.
Could you please explain the difference between the two sentences below?
1. We went to the same beach every summer.
2. We used to go to the same beach every summer.
Your reply is a big help for me, Sir.

Hello Sokhomkim,

Yes, I see what you mean. The past simple doesn't give us any information about the present. It's not impossible for something that we did in the past to also be true now. For example, perhaps we did something regularly when we were younger, then stopped it for some years, and now do it again. But normally adverbials or context would make the meaning clear.

The two sentences you ask about mean the same thing. Perhaps the 'used to' form puts a little more emphasis on the activity as a habit, but only just slightly. They have the same meaning otherwise.

Best wishes,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team