Home > Grammar, Oral English > “Used to” and “would”

“Used to” and “would”

English learners may sometimes have problems understanding how to use the grammatical construction of “used to”. “Used to” is used in English to refer to ongoing, regular action in the past (see example 1).

e.g. 1 – “When I lived in China, I used to work for CCTV.”

Note that in this example, the person referred to regularly worked for CCTV in the past. It is not, however, possible to use “used to” if the past action was not regular (see example 2):

e.g. 2 – “When I lived in China, I used to meet Hu Jintao once.” (grammatically incorrect)

This example is not a correct use of “used to” as the word “once” makes clear that the action did not occur regularly.
In addition, there is usually an implication that this action is finished (see example 3).

e.g. 3 – “I used to bring my lunch to work.”

Unless there is information to the contrary, an English speaker who heard such a sentence would assume that this person NO LONGER brings his/her lunch to work. However, it should be noted that this only an implication as it possible to state the following (see example 4):

e.g. 4 – “I used to bring my lunch to work when I worked for ABC Company, and in fact, I still bring my lunch to work for my present company.”

The above sentence should indicate that the core meaning of “used to” is ongoing, regular past action rather than (in addition) action which is finished. Nevertheless, that the action referred to with “used to” no longer occurs is a typical implication of “used to”.

A problematic area for English learners in this regard is when to use “used to” and when to use “would” as both “used to” and “would” can be used to refer to ongoing, past action (see examples 5 and 6).

e.g. 5 – “When I was a boy, I used to play soccer with my friends every week.”
e.g. 6 – “When I was a boy, I would play soccer with my friends every week.”

Both of the above sentence are grammatically possible and they are synonymous. However, there are some verbs that “would” cannot occur with that “used to” can occur with (see examples 7 and 8):

e.g. 7 – “I used to live in Alberta.” (grammatically correct)
e.g. 8 – “I would live in Alberta.” (grammatically incorrect)

As examples 7 and 8 above show, it is possible to use “live” with “used to” but not with “would”. Why not? The reason is that “live” does not indicate a dynamic activity unlike “play soccer”. “Used to” can be used both with verbs indicating dynamic activities as well as those verbs that do not refer to dynamic activities. In contrast, “would” can ONLY refer to verbs indicating dynamic activities. Thus, the following verb phrases are possible with “used to”, but not possible with “would”:

e.g. 9 – “He would be an engineer.” (grammatically incorrect)
e.g. 10 – “He used to be an engineer.” (grammatically correct)

e.g. 11 – “He used to like hockey.” (grammatically correct)
e.g. 12 – “He would like hockey.” (grammatically incorrect)

Now, it’s your turn. Read the following sentences and decide if they are grammatically correct or incorrect.

Practice exercise:
a) Ming used to live in Shanghai.
b) Hong would live in Beijing.
c) I used to be born in 1981.
d) He would play hockey several times a week when he was a boy.
e) She used to play ping pong several times a week when she was in university, and in fact, she still plays ping pong several times a week.

Answers:
a) correct
b) incorrect
c) incorrect
d) correct
e) correct

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Categories: Grammar, Oral English
  1. 2883358
    August 24, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    I used to learn English in your class.

    • August 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm

      Actually, in English, you would say:

      “I used to study English in your class.”

      “Learn” is usually used for more informal learning situations while “study” is used for more formal learning situations. So, you would say:

      “I learned how to ride a bike when I was 7.” rather than the same sentence with “studied”.

  2. Anonymous
    July 21, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Re “Unless there is information to the contrary, an English speaker who heard such a sentence would assume that this person NO LONGER brings his/her lunch to work. However, it should be noted that this only an implication as it possible to state the following”
    I respectfully beg to differ. ‘I used to’ always indicates that the action is not continuing now; in your example since the guy is not working at the first company anymore, clearly he cannot be eating lunch there. So the general rule still applies. What do you think?

  3. Anonymous
    July 21, 2017 at 8:17 am

    I’m Dave Winet at Cal State East Bay. Wasn’t able to enter my info using this iPad, sorry.

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