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 (63 votes)
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Hello again Ulk,

Yes, that's right. As long as giving evening classes was a habit and not just a single action then both 'used to' and 'would' are fine.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Submitted by DoraX on Fri, 11/08/2023 - 13:42

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Hello LearnTeam,
I would like to ask you why the simple past is correct in the following sentence: "As we watched a movie, the house started shaking." The action (watch a movie) had a duration, didn't it?
Can we apply the same in more contexts? For example " As I walked down the street, an accident happened."

Hello DoraX,

It's not incorrect to use the past simple like this but it is rather unusual, and the past progressive would be more likely to show an interrupted action / an action in progress.

The past simple is often used when the performance of one action causes another. For example: As I entered the kitchen, she put the kettle on. [implication: she put the kettle on because she thought I might want a cup of tea]. However, this is not the case in your example so I'm not sure why the author chose the past simple. You would need to ask the author what their intention was and what impression they wished to create.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish

Your point that it's not incorrect but it is rather unusual was very useful. The explanation with the use of the simple past was very interesting as well. I have surely understood that context plays the main role.That's all I wanted to know. Thanks a lot!

Submitted by User_1 on Mon, 19/06/2023 - 14:31

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Hello,
I would ask you about Used to + infinitive and Would.
If "used to" refers to past habits (repeated past actions) and "would" to repeated past actions, are they interchangeable?
I don't manage to figure out the difference between the use of them.
Thanks for the help.

Hello User_1,

I'd say the only important difference in meaning is that we don't use 'would' to talk about past states.

In other words, if we want to talk about a state (as opposed to an action), we have to use 'used to' (or the past simple) and not 'would'. For example, I could say 'I used to be a nurse' or 'I used to live in Tennessee', but not *'I would be a nurse' or *'I would live in Tennessee'.

But yes, when it comes to talking about repeated past actions, 'used to' and 'would' have the same meaning and so are interchangeable in terms of meaning.

In terms of use -- in other words, how people actually use them -- 'would' is more formal and more common in literary contexts than 'used to'. So in that sense, they're not completely interchangeable.

Does that make sense?

All the best,
Kirk
LearnEnglish team

Hello Kirk,
Thanks for your clarification of that difference.
My doubt was about repeated past actions.
All the best

Submitted by hossein7802 on Fri, 16/06/2023 - 12:16

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I just wanted to say that this lesson, despite its simplicity, was very useful for me and solved one of my issues.
Thanks!

Submitted by miki1130 on Tue, 28/03/2023 - 19:38

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I'd like to ask about WOULD which is used to say something happened in the past.

In Oxford Dictionary, the sentence below was shown as an example sentence talking about things that happened in the past.

He'd always be the first to offer to help.
(https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/american_english/…)

My reference book says if a verb in a sentence is a stative verb, USED TO should be used as a modal verb.
I thought USED TO is more appropriate as an auxiliary verb in this sentence.
However, Why is WOULD used as a modal verb in the example sentence?
Is it because the thing, which is referred to in this sentence is not completely static?
In other words, I'm wondering if it's because it was not completely constantly but every time something happened that "he offered to help"?
Although I'm afraid what I'm saying is quite unclear because of my terrible English, I'd appreciate it if you'd tell me why WOULD not USED TO can be used in this sentence.

Hello miki1130,

It's an interesting question and you express it clearly. Certainly, would is possible here and the reason is that 'be the first to...' is necessarily about an action and not a state. You cannot follow this phrase with a description of a state as it inherently describes a choice to do something. For example, you can't say

He would always be the first to be clever.

but you can say

He would always be the first to give a clever answer.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team