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How to express Past Habits in English

Past Habits

How to express Past Habits in English

So what happens when you want to talk about Past habits or habits you had in the past in English? Well, English has 4 ways you can do this! Some ways are more common than others, but all of them work, let’s learn them!

1) Used to + infinitive is the main way we express Past Habits

This is by far the most common. We use the modal auxiliary verb “used to” + infinitive (of any verb) to express a habit you had in the past. For instance, 

  • We used to travel when we were younger. 
  • Jane never used to like football. 
  • Our friends used to stay with us every weekend when we were kids. 

Needless to say, take care when using this form to ask questions in the past simple with “to do” because you need to remove the “d” from “used”. For instance, you should say: 

  • Did you use to play an instrument? = correct. 

And not: 

  • Did you used to play an instrument? = incorrect. 

See what we mean? The first question is correct because it makes use of the infinitive “use”, and the second question is incorrect because you must use “to do” + infinitive (use) to ask questions, and “used” is not an infinitive. 

2) The past simple 

In English, we can use the past simple for two main reasons: 1) to express past actions that began then finished (they do not continue), and 2) to express past habits.

Let’s explore the second meaning of the past simple where it can be used to express past habits. 

  • We always ate together when we lived in our apartment.
  • You seemed so happy when you were living at home. 
  • She worked Monday to Friday at the office.  

As you see, here we’ve made use of the past simple in ate, seemed and worked to express past habitual actions. This use is not as common as “used to” + infinitive, but still relatively common in everyday English. 

3) The modal auxiliary verb “would”

The modal auxiliary verbwould” has quite a few use cases such as 1) for interpersonal use “would you like to see me?”, 2) used in the second and third conditionals, and 3) used for expressing past habits, however, this use case is not nearly as common as the previous two rules with “used to” + “infinitive” and the past simple. Let’s dive a little deeper!

  • The way our sister would drink her coffee so fast was amazing. 
  • When we played basketball, I would always win. 
  • Mark would find ways to solve his problems. 

So, feel free to use the modal auxiliary verb, “would” to express past habits, however, do bear in mind that it’s not as common as the first two rules we went over. 

4) Was or were + used to + gerund 

If you want to express a past habit which was somewhat continuous in nature, then, you can use this form “was/were” + “used to” + gerund, however, this way of expressing a past habit is probably the least common, needless to say, feel free to use it if the nature of the past has a certain continuity to it.

How about a few examples to put you at ease: 

  • They were so used to waking up early when they lived in that town. 
  • I was not used to working so hard at that age. 
  • Our family was used to meeting different types of people. 

Lesson summary on Past Habits in English

So, there are 4 ways to express past habits in English

  • Used to + infinitive
  • The Past Simple
  • The modal auxiliary verb “would”
  • Was or were + used to + gerund

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