Past habits – Over and over again

You can describe past habits (or actions that happened repeatedly in the past) in three different ways in English: used to, would and the past simple tense.

Used to

If you have learnt about modal and semi-modal verbs before, you may be familiar with used to. In fact this semi-modal verb is the most common way to talk about past habits, especially for more elementary students. When talking about habits with used to, you can simply add used to into the sentence before the main verb, such as in this example:

I go to Egypt every summer with my parents.

This is something that I do now.

I used to go to Egypt every summer with my parents.

This is something that happened frequently in the past.

Adding used to to this sentence changes the tense from a habit that you do in the present (e.g. travelling to Egypt with my parents) to a past habit. Note that the bare infinitive of the main verb (in the example above, it is go) makes an appearance because used to is a set phrase. This is related to its role as a semi-modal verb.

Would

The second way we can talk about past habits is using the word would. Like used to, you can simple add this word to a sentence to change it to the past tense:

I go to Egypt every summer with my parents.

This is something that I do now.

I would go to Egypt every summer with my parents as a child.

This is something that happened frequently in the past.

Note that in the second example, we added “as a child” to the sentence. While a sentence with used to does not necessarily need a specific time, sentences with would often have a time marker to show when they happened. In this case, the past habit (going to Egypt) happened over a period of time (every summer…as a child).

Past simple tense

Instead of adding words like used to and would into a sentence, we can also use the past simple tense to show that something happened in the past. To show that it happened repeatedly, we need to specify a time range that this happened. We have seen this in previous examples:

I go to Egypt every summer with my parents.

This is something that I do now.

I went to Egypt every summer with my parents as a child.

This is something that happened frequently in the past.

But what are the differences?

1) On the surface there does not seem to be many differences between these three methods, so why do three exist? In fact there are some differences. Firstly, we cannot use would when talking about past states. Let’s use living in New York City:

I used to live in NYC.

This is an example of a past state; there is no action going on here but it does describe how something is or what something is like. In this case, my place of residence at one point in time was NYC. Let’s try replacing it with would:

I would live in NYC.

As you can see, we could not use would in this case. This is because would plus a stative verb forms a conditional tense. For this simple reason, we cannot use would with these kinds of verbs.

2) Additionally, would is a bit more formal than used to (when we can use them interchangeably). In older texts (or stories such as fairy tales), the word would occurs more frequently to describe past habits.

3) With would and the past simple, people usually add a time marker to show when something is happening. This is not necessary with used to unless knowing the time is necessary:

I used to go to Egypt with my parents.

4) Using would or used to for a past habit shows that something has changed or that the state is no longer true. For example, if you used to live in NYC, you no longer live there. This is not true of the past simple:

I used to live in NYC as a child.

This was true as a child but is no longer true (i.e. you do not live in NYC right now).

I lived in NYC as a child.

This does not necessarily mean that you do not live there now. You could have moved back sometime later.

5) Using would and used to for a past habit emphasises that this action happened repeatedly, which makes sense as a habit is something that happens repeatedly. However, when using the past simple, this emphasis is lost as you can also use the past simple for something that happens once:

I went to Egypt every summer with my parents.

This is something that happened frequently in the past.

I went to Egypt in the summer of 2019 with my parents.

This action only happened once in the past.

For teachers:

Lower-level students are usually introduced to used to to talk about habits because it is easier to teach and they have not usually seen any other uses for used to (e.g. to be used to/to get used to). The word would is usually reserved for conditional tenses/sentences for the same reason. Because of this, students who are moving into higher level classes associate used to with past habits and would with conditionals. It is often a good idea to start with what they are comfortable with and then bridge the gaps in their knowledge. If the class or lesson you are teaching focuses on grammar, a good first activity is having students create past habits with used to. What did they used to do as a child?

Here are some examples:

  • Humans used to go to the moon.
  • I used to ride my bike up a hill until I moved.
  • My father used to lift me up on his shoulders when I was a child.
  • What did you used to eat as a child?
  • Did you used to be friends?

Once they have created their sentences, have them work together to change these to would sentences. For the above sentences, would simply replaces used to.

From there, you can then have the students change them to past simple sentences. For the above examples, the results would be (time phrases added in brackets):

  • Humans went to the moon (in the 60s and 70s).
  • I rode my bike up a hill (every day) until I moved.
  • My father lifted me up on his shoulders when I was a child.
  • What did you eat as a child?
  • Were you friends?

Once they have done these activities, they can also do the same in reverse. Start with some examples of either would or past simple sentences and have the students change the sentences to another form of a past habit.

For those doing oral practice, a great place to start (like with the sentences above) is to have students tell each other about what they used to do as a child. This will invariably lead to used to sentences. Once they have practised sufficiently with used to, you can have them re-tell what they used to do as a story in the style of a fairy tale. A good way to facilitate this with a class that you can split into pairs/groups is to change the pairs/groups between this step and the previous one. For an added level of difficulty (e.g. for more advanced students) you can have the students use the sentences from their original partners to create their fairy tale. For example:

In first pair/group:

Student A: I used to go to bed before midnight before I started attending university.

Student B: I used to live in NYC and I loved it.

In second pair/group:

Student A (to student C): Once upon a time there was a child named Student A. Student A would always go to bed early. One

Student B (to student D): One upon a time there was a child named Student B. Student B lived in NYC and liked it very much.

Note: this is also a good review of narrative tenses.

To practice writing, have students write a letter to a friend having them describe what they used to do. Have them also explain in the same letter why they no longer do/are those things (e.g. I no longer live in NYC).


If you liked this post, why not check out my Teaching English page for more articles. More specialised English topics can also be found under posts such as Doublets (and Triplets) in English or The Basic Characteristics of Scientific Language.

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