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The difference between used to and would

Kevin Naglich
Founder, Deliberate English

A great way to speak more fluent English faster is to look for quick wins.

Quick wins are things that are easy to fix but have a huge impact on how natural you sound.

One example is when to use would vs. used to to talk about things that happened regularly in the past. 

The rule is simple: 

Would is only for repeated actions. Specific things that happened again and again and again. 

For example, a repeated action with would is something like visiting your grandma every Sunday. Every Sunday, you visited your grandma again and again and again. I would visit my grandma every Sunday. 

Used to can be used for both repeated actions and for states like being afraid or habits like smoking. 

We can say, "I used to go to the store every afternoon" AND "I would go to the store every afternoon" because "going to the store every afternoon" is a repeated action.

  • On Monday, you went to the store.
  • On Tuesday, you went to the store. 
  • On Wednesday, you went to the store. 
  • Etc.

On the other hand, if we say, "I used to take care of my mother when she was ill," this is not a repeated action. 

When your mother was ill is simply a period of time. She wasn't ill again and again and again. She was sick one time, for a few months.

However, if we change the sentence and say, "I would take care of my mother every day after work." then this works for would. 

We're saying that we went to take care of her again and again and again. Every single day we went to help her.

Other things that don't repeat are habits like, "I used to smoke." 

This is a habit that took place for a period of time.

Not something you did again and again and again.

Another example is a state, like being afraid: "I used to be afraid of the dark." 

You weren't afraid of the dark again and again and again. 

This was a characteristic of your personality that was true for a period of time in the past. 

To summarize: Used to can be used for everything - repeated actions, states, and habits. Would can only be used for repeated actions. 

You now have everything you need to sound more natural.

What you need now is practice. Let's do some together.

Exercise #1

Does would work in this sentence, or does it have to be used to?

She used to hate country music, but now she loves it.

In this case, her preference in music is simply a state or characteristic. It's not an action that repeats, so we have to use used to.

Exercise #2

Can we use would here, or does it have to be used to again?

My son used to play football.

This is a habit. An activity that your son participated in for a period of time. We have to use used to.

Exercise #3

What if we change the sentence? Does would fit now?

My son would play football every fall.

Yes, it does. Now, we're not just talking about a habit. We're adding details that make it clear this is a repeated action.

Exercise #4

This sentence uses both would and used to. Which one fits in which spot?

When I was a teenager, I used to be a lot skinnier because I would exercise every day.

Being skinny is a state. It describes what you were like. We have to use used to.

Exercising every day is a repeated activity. We can use both would and used to. In order to avoid repeating ourselves, it's best to use would.

Exercise #5

Last one. Is this sentence correct?

No. Having a car is a state or characteristic. It's not something that repeats again and again. Therefore, we need to use "used to."

used to have a car, but I no longer needed it when I moved to the city.

Congratulations. You've just improved your fluency in five minutes. Remember, when you want to talk about things that happened regularly in the past, that no longer happen now, we use would for repeated actions only. Used to, can be used for anything, whether that's repeated actions, states, habits, etc. 

When in doubt, use used to

By the way, do you need help with your business English? Use the form below to get a copy of my FREE eBook: 3 Steps To Confidently Express Yourself at Work. It''ll teach you how to sound more natural, polite, and professional when working in an English-speaking company.

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