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Expressing Past Habits in English with Used to, Would, or the Simple Past

Expressing Past Habits in English with Used to, Would, or the Simple Past

Past habits are actions of states of being that we did over and over in the past. We are no longer doing them. They are finished.The important thing is that we did not do them only once. We repeated them in the past. In this posting I talk about discussing past habits, actions, or states of being using used to, would, and the simple past. I include many example sentences. The download at the end will help you use these expressions to talk about past habits.

Here is the free English lesson I taught on YouTube:

Past habits are finished now, but they were actions you did repeatedly in the past. Let us look at how to discuss your past habits.

Past habits with used to

We can use used to to talk about both past habits, actions, or states of being. Use the following formula: subject + used to + base form of the verb. For the negative, use subject + didn’t use to + base form of the verb.

  1. My father used to work after school when he was a boy.   This is a repeated action or past habit. We know he didn’t work only one time. He worked every day.
  2. My uncle didn’t use to work after school, because his family was wealthy. 
  3. I used to do tai chi in high school.   This is also a repeated action or past habit.
  4. I didn’t use to do track in high school. 
  5. When my brother was younger, he used to play football every day.  See note above.
  6. My brother didn’t use to play basketball when he was younger. 
  7. I used to live in New York.  This is a past state of being. I lived in New York over time, but I no longer live there.
  8. She didn’t use to live in California. 
  9. When he was a child, he used to be sick often.   This is also a past state of being.
  10. When I was a child, I didn’t use to be sick often. 

Past habits with would

We can discuss past habits using would in much the same way, and with the same meaning as used to. Here is the formula: subject + would + base form of the verb. for the negative use subject + wouldn’t + base form of the verb.

  1. When we were young, our mother would cook delicious meals every day.   We could also say, “Our mother used to cook delicious meals every day.”
  2. When we were young, our mother wouldn’t cook delicious meals. She was always too busy. 
  3. Every weekend I would take a long bike ride during summer vacations.   “Every weekend I used to take a long bike ride” is also correct.
  4. I didn’t use to ride my bike during the summer. It was too hot. 

There is one important difference between would and used to. We can use would only to discuss past habits or actions. We cannot use would to discuss past states of being. Instead, use  used to for that.

  1. I used to live in France.  Not I would live in France.
  2. I used to be afraid of the dark.   Not I would be afraid of the dark.

Past habits with the simple past

We can talk about past habits, past actions, and past states of being using the simple past. Be careful, however. The person you are talking to needs to understand that you are not talking about something that happened only once. You are talking about something that happened over and over again. You need to make sure that you the person you are talking to understand by the context that this was a repeated action.

  1. I had a dog when I was young.   Or, I used to have a dog when I was young.
  2. I worked part time in high school.   Or, I used to (would) work part time when I was in high school.
  3. She was sick all the time when she was a baby.   Or, she used to be sick all the time when she was a baby.
  4. My kids attended Carson Elementary School many years ago.  Or, My kids used to attend Carson Elementary School.

Used to for something besides past habits

There is another way to use used to that does not involve past habits. Used to can also mean to be come accustomed to something. We use this to describe something that once felt strange, but now feels normal.

  1. When I first came to the USA, it was strange to hear English everywhere. But I’m used to it now. It’s no longer strange. It feels normal. 
  2. It took some time to get used to my new schedule, but I’m comfortable with it now. 

You now know that we can discuss our past habits using used to, would, or the simple past. We can only discuss past actions with would. Do not use would to discusspast states of being. We can use both used to and the simple past to talk about past habits, actions, or states of being. When we use the simple past to discuss past habits, we need to make sure our listener or reader knows by context that the action did not happen just once. It happened again and again. The download will give you more practice talking about your past habits.

You can download the practice sheet now!

Idioms of the Day

  1. to sweep something under the rug–This means to hid a serious problem and hope that no one finds out. He tried to sweep his alcohol problem under the rug, because he was afraid of losing his job. 
  2. a hop, skip, and a jump–This means a very short distance. I only live a hop, skip, and a jump from Target. 

Misty Davidson
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