3 ways to talk about the past in English

You can use the simple past to talk about…

1. A state or status (which is not true anymore):

  • Last night we were very tired.
  • When I was a child, I lived in Boston.
  • He wasn’t happy when he found out about the problem.
  • Why weren’t you at work yesterday? Were you sick?

2. A single action:

  • Last night we watched a movie.
  • My family moved to New York in 1998.
  • Yesterday I bought a new jacket.
  • She didn’t go to the party last week.
  • Did you study for the test?

For single actions, you MUST use the simple past. You can’t use “used to” or “would.”

3. A repeated action:

  • studied every day when I was in high school.
  • Back when we were rich, we ate at nice restaurants pretty frequently.

Although it’s possible to use the simple past for repeated actions, it’s more common to use “used to” or “would” in these cases.

Talking about the past in English

“I studied every day when I was in high school.”

You can use used to to talk about…

1. A state or status (which is not true anymore):

  • used to be an engineer, but now I’m a teacher.
  • used to like rock music, but now I prefer jazz.
  • We used to have a car, but we sold it when we moved to the city.
  • He has lost a lot of weight in the past few years. He used to be obese.
Using would and used to in English

“I used to like rock music, but now I prefer jazz.”

Or something that wasn’t true in the past, but is true now:

  • She didn’t use to be very religious, but now she’s a devoted Catholic.
  • didn’t use to care about politics, but I’ve been getting more interested in it lately.

2. A repeated action in the past
(which you do not do anymore):

  • used to play basketball every weekend. Now I don’t have time for it, though.
  • My dad used to smoke a lot. Fortunately, he quit smoking last year.

Or something that you didn’t have the habit of doing in the past, but you do now:

  • We didn’t use to watch much TV, but now we have a lot of favorite shows.
  • didn’t use to drink coffee, but nowadays I can’t survive without my morning cup!
How to use used to in English

“I didn’t used to like coffee, but now I can’t survive without my morning cup!”

You can use would to talk about only

1. A repeated action in the past
(which you do not do anymore):

  • When I was younger, I would play basketball every weekend.
  • When I was in college, my mother would call me every day to find out how my classes went.
  • Back when I lived with my brother, we would stay up late playing video games.

These sentences can also be expressed with “used to” – there is no difference:

  • When I was younger, I would play basketball every weekend.
  • = When I was younger, I used to play basketball every weekend.

Don’t make the mistake of saying “would to play.”
The word “would” is NEVER followed by “to.”

How to use would in the past

“When I was younger, I would play basketball every weekend.”

We do NOT use the negative form (wouldn’t) to talk about the absence of past habits – in this case we must use “used to”:

  • wouldn’t drink coffee.
  • didn’t use to drink coffee.

We do NOT use “would” to talk about past states. It is only used for actions.

  • would be an engineer, but now I’m a teacher.
  • used to be an engineer, but now I’m a teacher.
  • would like rock music, but now I prefer jazz.
  • used to like rock music, but now I prefer jazz.

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