A past habit is an action that was repeated, or a state that existed, over a period in the past but not now. We can talk about past habits using used to or would followed by an infinitive verb, or we can use the simple past tense. See the links at the bottom of this page to download a PDF of this explanation as well as a number of past habits activities.
Repeated past actions (used to & would)
It is most common to use used to followed by an infinitive verb to describe past habits:
- I used to play the violin at school. (I no longer play the violin)
- My brother used to speak French. (My brother no longer speaks French)
- We used to go to Spain for our holidays. (We no longer go to Spain for our holidays)
Remember that when you are asking a question, or you are giving a negative response, we use the infinitive use after did (although because of connected speech, this is only noticeable in writing – when you speak, it will be pronounced exactly the same as used to):
- Did you use to live here?
- I didn’t use to live here.
Would followed by an infinitive verb can also be used to talk about past habits that are actions (but we do not use would for states). We tend to use would when we are speaking a little more formally or reminiscing about the past, but there really isn’t that much difference between would and used to when talking about past habits that are actions:
- When I was younger, my mother would bake apple crumble on Sundays.
- In the olden days, people would live near to where they work.
- We would cycle for hours after we finished school.
If we aren’t really interested in emphasising the fact that we are talking about past habits, we can use the simple past (sometimes this may take away the context, or it might not be obvious you are talking about past habits):
- I played the violin at school.
- My brother spoke French.
- When I was younger, my mother baked apple crumble on Sundays.
Past states (used to)
In the vast majority of cases, only used to can be used to describe states that existed in the past:
- I used to have blond hair when I was a child.
I would have blond hair when I was a child.
- My sister used to be in the girl guides.
My sister would be in the girl guides.
- My cousin used to believe in fairies.
My cousin would believe in fairies.
One exception to this would be if the past state was frequently repeated, in which case an adverb of frequency should be used with would:
- I would often have blond hair during my student days.
- My grandfather would often seem unhappy when we visited him at the old folks’ home.
- My mother would often need help in the family shop.
Again, if we are not emphasising the fact that this is a past habit, we can just use the simple past:
- I had blond hair when I was a child.
- My sister was in the girl guides.
- My cousin believed in fairies until she was 12.
Common mistakes with used to
One of the most common mistakes students make with used to is confusing it with be used to or get used to. Be used to and get used to are used to talk about familiarity with an action, not that an action was a past habit. Both be used to and get used to are followed by the gerund, not an infinitive verb:
He’s not used to drive on the left. He’s not used to driving on the left. (he is not familiar with this) People are used to see police officers with guns in train stations. People are used to seeing police officers with guns in train stations. (people are familiar with this) I can’t get used to wake up at this time. I can’t get used to waking up at this time. (I cannot become familiar with this) You need to get used to work with Nathan. You need to get used to working with Nathan. (you need to become familiar with this)
Click on the links below to download a PDF version of this page as well as a number of past habits activities: