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'Used to' or 'would' in Learn it today
'used to...' (the 1960s-70s fashion)

Julie from Belgium writes:

Is this construction correct: Did you used to play tennis?

Ehtisham Haq, studying English in the US, writes:

I would like to know the correct use of used to and would for past habits. Please tell me which of these is correct:

I used to live in that house.
I would live in that house.

Roger Woodham replies:
  used to: questions and negative forms

Used to is used to describe past habits or long-lasting actions and situations which are now finished

  • People used to think the sun revolved around the earth.

  • I used to take size 12, but now I take size 14

For questions and negative forms, two forms of the verb are used - either the normal infinitive pattern after did (more common), or the past form used (less common):

  • When you were a kid, did you use to think the sun revolved around the earth?

  • When you were a kid, did you used to think the sun revolved around the earth?

  • I didn't use to take such a large dress size, but now I do.

  • I didn't used to take such a large dress size, but now I do.

In a more formal style, questions and negatives are possible without do, following the pattern of a modal auxiliary verb, although these forms are less often used:

  • I used not to like contemporary dance, but now I do.

  • Used you to play the organ in church before you became a monk?

in 1996/last month etc. - usually/frequently/often etc.

When we use used to, we are describing things that happened at an earlier stage in our lives which are no longer in place as circumstances have changed. Note that if we want simply to refer to what happened in the past, we normally use the simple past tense, often with an adverbial time phrase:

  • From 1995 to 1998 I lived in that house and then I emigrated to Australia.

  • I returned to Britain two years ago and last year I bought this house in Bath.

Note that when we want to talk about present habits and states, we use the present simple tense, often with an adverb of frequency:

  • I usually do my homework immediately after supper.

  • I occasionally smoke cigars, but never cigarettes.

  • I normally use public transport in London, but I sometimes drive in despite the congestion charge.

would or used to?

When we are telling a story and recollecting an event from long ago, we often prefer to use would to describe repeated behaviour in the past, although both would and used to are possible:

    Do you remember what we used to get up to when we were teenagers? How I would wait for you nearly every afternoon after school and then we would stroll home together across the park, holding hands, and you would feed the ducks on the pond while I had a cigarette?

Note, Ehtisham, that would in this sense describes past events and actions. It cannot be used to refer to past states. To describe past states we can only use used to:

  • I used to live in that house over there.
    (NOT: I would live in that house over there.)

  • I used to own a 1966 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce.
    (NOT I would own a 1966 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce.)

  • I used sometimes to drive to work in it.

  • I would sometimes drive to work in it.

If you would like more practice more please visit our Message Board in the You, Me and Us part of our website.

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