Past forms: “Would” & “used to”

By 3 February 2020 Video lessons 8 Comments
would to talk about the past

Hi there! I’m your English coach Christina, welcome to Speak English with Christina, where you’ll learn about American culture and business know-how to become confident in English.

In American English, there are a few different ways we can talk about things we did in the past that don’t happen anymore. You may already be familiar with the past simple.

For example, if the action happened just once, you can say, “I went to the library yesterday.” Or, “I visited the company headquarters last week.”

But how can you express repeated actions in the past that you did again and again?

It’s quite simple, and it’s our topic for this episode. Let’s go!

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When I was young, I would…

Let me tell you a story about me and my sister Lisa. If you’re a student in the Understand Real American English online course, you met her in Module 1.

Well, when we were kids, we would fight all the time. We would run around the house, we would pull each other’s hair, and we would call each other stupid names. It drove my mom and dad crazy!

Even when we went to the same school years later, we would make fun of each other all the time. But now, we’re more mature, and we actually like each other! I guess that’s just how siblings are! That’s a true story!

Did you notice a key word in my story?

The word is “would.” One of the most common ways to talk about something you did repeatedly in the past is to use the past tense of “Would”, in addition to the other past tenses in English that you may already know!

Would for past actions

We often use “would” when we’re describing our childhood.

For example:

  • “When I was young, I would draw every afternoon.”
  • “When I was young, I would ride my bike everywhere.”

Of course you can use “would” for other repeated actions that happened at any age. We can use “would” for repeated actions that happened more recently.

For example:

  • “On our vacation last year, we would go for long swims in the lake.”
  • “Before picking up my child from school, I would drink a coffee at the cafe.”
  • “When I first started my job, I would write the day’s goals down before work every day.”
  • “When I was a sales rep, I would make sure I always listened carefully to what my customers wanted.”
  • “Before I used English every day in my work, I would always have trouble spelling the English vowels.”

Do you see how in each example, the word “would” is used to describe a repeated action or habit that happened in the past? What if you want to talk about a paste state or situation?

“Used to” for past situations & recurring habits

We use “used to” when describing past states or situations.

For example

  • “I used to be a lawyer.”
  • “I used to have difficulties understanding Americans when they talk fast.”

This describes a past situation that lasted for a period of time. If I said “would” instead of “used to” in this scenario, it’s incorrect. “Before I became a judge, I would be a lawyer.” No, that just doesn’t make sense!

So we use “used to” to talk about past situations that are no longer true today, often jobs we did in the past, or places where we lived in the past.

For example:

  • “I used to work in a school”
  • “I used to live in the US.”
  • “I used to be confused about how to tip in the USA. But now I understand!”

Here are some other examples of “used to”, to describe past situations that lasted for a period of time, but are no longer true today:

  • “I used to work in the mail department, but I was promoted.”
  • “Our company headquarters used to be in the United States, but they moved to Canada.”
  • “I used to have trouble understanding American English.” (You’ll be able to say that one after you take one of my courses 😉

You can also use “used to” to describe a repeated action or recurrent habit in the past, similar to “would”.

Some examples:

  • “I used to ride my bike to work, but then I got an apartment right near the office.” /  “I would ride my bike to work every day, so I was really in shape then!”
  • “We used to have meetings every Tuesday morning, but we stopped that.” / “We would have meetings every Monday morning at 7am. It was awful!”
  • “I used to feel nervous before introducing myself in English, but I practiced and now it’s ok.” / I would feel nervous before introducing myself in English, but then I practiced, and got more confident.”

Want to hear all of these examples, and learn even better? Watch the episode below:

Now what about you?

Do you have any stories you’d like to share about your past experiences, habits, and cities you’ve lived in?

Did your siblings ever pull your hair like my sister and I did? Hopefully not, but you never know!

Share your past habits, experiences, and places you’ve lived in the comments, using “would” or “used to”!

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Thank you for learning with Speak English with Christina, and I’ll see you next time!

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