Used To vs. Would vs. Past Simple | Differences and Examples

used to vs would vs past simple

Do you ever find yourself wanting to talk about things you did repeatedly in the past that you no longer do? Or states that were true before but aren’t anymore? In English, we have some great grammar tools like ‘used to’ and ‘would’ to express these ideas. We also have the Past Simple to talk about single events in the past. In this post, we’ll break down the differences between these past tense forms and give some examples.

Use Past Simple for Single Events

First, use the past simple tense when talking about an event that happened once at a specific moment in the past. For example:

  • I went to hockey practice yesterday.
  • She saw that movie last week.

Don’t use ‘used to’ or ‘would’ for single events – stick to the past simple.

Used To for Past Actions and States 

Use ‘used to’ to describe repeated actions, habits, or states that were true in the past but are no longer true. For example:

  • I used to live in Montreal, but now I live in Toronto.
  • She used to play hockey 5 times a week.
  • Mark didn’t use to have a cat.

The structure is simple – just use ‘used to’ + the base verb. You don’t need to conjugate the verb. Note that in spoken English, ‘used to’ is often slurred together into ‘used(d) to.’

Would for Past Habits with Nostalgia

Like ‘used to,’ ‘would’ describes past habits or repeated actions. However, you can’t use ‘would’ with states such as be, have, need, know, etc. ‘Would’ also often has a nostalgic feeling. For example:

  • My dad would take us on amazing vacations when we were kids.
  • My mom would make the best panettone at Christmas.

‘Would’ is only used in positive statements to describe past habits/repeated actions. You cannot use ‘would’ in questions or negations for this purpose. ‘Used to’ should be used instead for questions and negations about past habits.

For example:

✔️ I would go to the park every Sunday as a kid. (positive statement – correct)
✖️ Would you go to the park every Sunday as a kid? (question – incorrect)
✔️ Did you use to go to the park every Sunday as a kid? (question – correct)
✖️ She would not call her parents every day in college. (negation – incorrect)
✔️ She didn’t use to call her parents every day in college. (negation – correct)

Quick Comparison

Past Tense FormsPast Repeated Actions / HabitsPast StatesPast one-time actions
Past Simple
used to

Understanding when to use ‘used to,’ ‘would,’ and past simple for talking about the past can help you express your ideas clearly and avoid mistakes. Pay attention to whether an action was repeated or one-time, if it still occurs today, and whether the sentence is positive, negative, or a question. With practice, choosing the right form will become second nature.

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