used to vs would

Discussion in 'Italian-English' started by paolar, Jan 10, 2008.

  1. paolar

    paolar Senior Member

    Rilancio un dubbio che ho avanzato in un precedente thread, ma che non è stato considerato!
    Nonostante abbia cercato di documentarmi sulle grammatiche non mi è ancora ben chiara la differenza tra used to e would per esprimere l'idea di un'azione che si soleva svolgere nel passato.
    Nella frase in oggetto:
    "When he was young he used to run a lot"
    used to può essere espresso con "he would run " indifferentemente o c'è qualche differenza?

    Grazie! :confused:

  2. fluoxetyn Senior Member

    Would run è il condizionale di correre..
    Used to run invece è un particola tipo di tempo passato, cioè quando si è soliti fare qualcosa per tanto tempo e poi non farla più esempio:

    I used to run marathon every day when I was young
    (Ero solito correre la maratona ogni anno quando ero giovane....ora no perchè sono vecchio)
  3. underhouse Senior Member

    Puoi usare "would" per descrivere un'azione che ricorreva nel passato, come "used to", direi solo che "would" è più formale!
  4. silverdaizy

    silverdaizy Senior Member

    Canada- English
    In questo caso, si può usare would run o used to run e significa lo stesso.

    Es. I would run marathons every year when I was a child.
    I used to run marathons every year when I was a child.

    Il problema è che non so come spiegare per chè...:confused:

    Mi dispiace!!
  5. paolar

    paolar Senior Member

    Grazie Underhouse, era questo il dettaglio che mi mancava!
  6. underhouse Senior Member

    Ciao paolar,

    la mia è una sensazione a dire il vero, vediamo se i madrelingua confermano!
  7. giovannino

    giovannino Senior Member

    Anche would, come used to, si può usare per descrivere azioni abituali nel passato.

    C'è una buona spiegazione qui :

  8. housecameron

    housecameron Senior Member

    Italian/ Italy
    Qui un altro approfondimento su used to e would da parte della nostra forera Leo57.
    Come ha già detto silverdaizy si equivalgono in casi simili ;)
  9. giovannino

    giovannino Senior Member

    Ho notato anche che nelle narrazioni spesso si preferisce usare would, forse perché usare used to più volte di seguito non è molto elegante. Non so se i madrelingua potranno confermarlo.
    Ad esempio, in un thread precedente Einstein ha scritto (riferendosi alla traduzione di un brano tratto da un romanzo):

  10. underhouse Senior Member

    Ciao giovannino,

    adesso non so cosa intendesse Einstein per "appropriate", però non penso che usare "used to", in quell'esempio, sarebbe scorretto grammaticalmente!
    A me sembra solo una questione di forma...
  11. giovannino

    giovannino Senior Member

    Ciao under:)

    Sì, ho l'impressione che sia una preferenza stilistica ma ne volevo la conferma dai madrelingua. Nei romanzi in genere trovo più would di seguito, piuttosto che una serie di used to.
  12. M_07 Senior Member

    Anche nelle canzoni:)
  13. fluoxetyn Senior Member


    Non ero assolutamente a conoscenza del fatto che would si potesse usare anche col significato di used to.......
  14. bellastella Member

    USA; English
    Per me, madrelingua, tutte due vanno bene e nessuno delle due e' piu' formale. Li userei intercambiabilmente.
  15. giovannino

    giovannino Senior Member

    Yes, I agree they're interchangeable in the sentence in the thread title. However I think it would be interesting to discuss the cases where they are not, since grammar books only mention that would cannot be used for past states (I used to be a teacher vs I would be a teacher:cross:, I used to like you etc).

    Maybe another difference is that used to so clearly refers to a past habit that no surrounding context is needed, whereas would requires a context where it is clear that past habits are being discussed. You can say I used to smoke on its own but I would smoke would only make sense in a sentence like whenever I had an exam the next day I would stay up all night and smoke non-stop.
    Only used to can be used to say that you've given up a habit.

    And I still think would is more common in narratives, as in this quote from Google:

    When I was a child, I would lie in bed at night, trying to stay awake until Dad got home from Cafe Louis...If I could stay awake until Dad came home, I would tiptoe down the stairs so as not to wake Mom.
  16. neuromatico

    neuromatico Senior Member

    English (Canadian)
    As giovannino indicates, the principal and only real difference between "would" and "used to" is that the latter provides context.

    1) I would run every day.

    This could indicate a continuing past action no longer taking place, but only if it was clear that the speaker is referring to the past:

    When, I was young, I would run every day.

    It could equally indicate the present/future conditional.

    If I had the time, I would run every day.

    With "would", context must be provided, either explicitly or implied by the preceding text.

    2) However, "used to" is not ambiguous. It can only indicate a habitual past action.

    I used to run every day.

    Context is required only to specify the time period, last week, last year, or when I was a boy.

    Otherwise, I would consider them interchangeable, including formality.
  17. Cappers New Member


    Well for what it's worth I think a key difference could be the comparison of time, namely 'used to' implies a comparison from today to the past ie 'I used to run a marathon every year' but these days I don't.
    However 'when i was young I'd/I would...' could exist as a distinct narrative of that time period without a comparison to now.
    My first visit to this forum so I hope I have been clear if nothing else! Do shout if not.
  18. brian

    brian Senior Member

    AmE (New Orleans)
    Attn: Not for the faint of heart! hehehe...

    Well, I've been thinking about this thread for a number of hours now, I've done some field work, conducted a bit of research, talked to people, and even taken a few blood samples, and here are my conclusions (some of which have already been mentioned here):

    I very much agree that "would" is used more in narrative than "used to," but not because of any difference in formality; rather, the difference in usage is based both on syntactic as well as semantic differences between the two. That being said, however, there may in fact be a perceived difference in formality between the two, based primarily on the greater usage of "would" in narrative than of "used to" (thus leading "would" to seem more formal).

    The principal differences between "would" and "used to" are twofold but not completely separable. First of all, they are used in syntactically different situations. "Would" (as mentioned above by giovannino) almost always requires some subordinate clause or a previous sentence acting in that same (subordinate) capacity, or at the very least an adverb, in order to give the verb a more explicit habitual denotation; "used to," on the other hand, does not need any other syntactic padding than the basic parts of a simple sentence (subject, verb, object):

    (1a) I would go to the movies. :confused:
    (1b) I used to go to the movies.

    In (1a) there is not enough information in the sentence to give "would" a more explicit habitual denotation; in (1b), however, "used to" does not require more information.

    (2a) I would go to the movies every day. :confused:
    (2b) I used to go to the movies every day.

    (3a) When I was a kid, I would go to the movies. :confused:
    (3b) When I was a kid, I used to go to the movies.

    (4a) When I was a kid, I would go to the movies every day. :tick:
    (4b) When I was a kid, I used to go to the movies every day. :tick:

    In (2a) and in (3a) I have added extra information, but it does still not help the sentence with "would"; it still sounds unnatural because there is not enough emphasis on the habit of the past action. (2a) begs the question "When?" and (3a) begs the question "How often?" Again, however, (2b) and (3b) with "used to" are perfectly fine. "When" and "How often" are of no concern because "used to" emphasizes both past tense and habit by itself. But combining (2a) and (3a) to get (4a) finally becomes satisfactory, so that the sentence provides an idea of "when" and "how often."

    Before moving on, some might ask, "Well how/why does 'used to' answer the questions 'when' and 'how often,' but 'would' does not?" My answer: Without having more context (i.e. in a simple sentence like (1b)), "used to" refers either to a state (as mentioned above by giovannino) or to a non-habitual action! "I used to have long hair" refers to my past state of having long hair; "I would have long hair" :cross: cannot work. In (1b), "I used to go to the movies" refers to my non-habitual action of going to the movies--i.e., I simply went to the movies every now and then but not on any regular basis; it was an action in which I engaged at times but not habitually--"I would go to the movies" :cross: cannot work. However, adding more context, like "When I was a kid" and "every day," forces "used to" to become habitual, just like "would."

    As a last point on syntax, both subordinate clauses and adverbs tend to precede "would" in a sentence, while "used to" tends to precede its sentence's subordinate clauses and adverbs. Compare: "Every morning at 6 am, he would wake up and go for a run" vs. "He used to wake up every morning at 6 am and go for a run." To me, "Every morning at 6 am, he used to..." sounds very awkward. If you'd like more information on this part of the syntactical differences, please PM me.

    Now, syntax aside, the second principal difference is semantic (i.e. the words carry different connotations). As mentioned above by Cappers, there is an issue of time reference here: "used to" always makes some (possibly underlying) comparison to the present tense, while "would" is more general and concentrates on the past. "Used to" implies quite directly that, for whatever reason, the action no longer occurs during the present time or, at the very least, makes the reader/listener wonder, "Does he/she still do that?" "Would," on the other hand, simply states the fact of the habitual action and does not say whether the person still continues it to this day. The best way to see this is in narrative (forgive me for my terrible prose!):

    Jack Hilbert was a very unusual man, even for one who lived in Rogers Park in the '60s. He was always up late at night wandering the streets and smoking Camels and picking up the stench of old Chicago. He used to wake up at 6 am every morning with that same stench and revel in the fact that he could start all over...

    This use of "used to" makes me immediately ask myself, "Did he stop doing this? Why? Will I find out later?" He probably did in fact stop that habitual action; otherwise, the sentence would better be written as "He would wake up at 6 am" or "He always woke up at 6 am," neither of which imply or deny that he continues to do so to this day. Consider (1b) above: this implies that I no longer go to the movies at all. (2b), however, implies that I no longer go to the movies every day (but perhaps I still go occasionally).

    Sometimes the reason for the character no longer doing that action could be as simple as death. Sometimes it could be more important, such as a change in lifestyle or some crucial plot twist. In any case, "used to" implies that the character no longer does that action.

    Some final remarks. I would hypothesize that the predominance of "would" over "used to" in narrative, and similarly of "used to" over "would" in spoken language, is not due to any sense of formality, but rather to a number of factors. In a narrative the author usually describes basic (habitual) actions that the character may or may not continue to do during the present time. Often, it is not important whether the character does not continue to do them, so it is of no use to confusingly use "used to," which makes the reader infer that the action no longer continues (and is therefore of some importance); and if the action does still occur, then the author cannot use "used to." Furthermore, given the right context and syntactical features (as mentioned above), "would" can do the exact same job as "used to," so that by using "used to" once and then using "would" a few times, the author can avoid cumbersome repetition.

    The reason that "used to" is more common than "would" in speech is because most people describe past habitual actions that they no longer do; if it were my intention to explain a past action that I still do, I would simply say "I have been doing ____ since..." Moreover, as seen above, "would" requires more words and contexts, so it's simply shorter and more convenient in conversation to use "used to."

    Thus, I see no real formality issue between "would" and "used to"; the differences to me are purely syntactic and semantic. If anyone does feel there is a difference in formality, I would say that it's precisely because "would" is used less in speech and more in writing/narrative.

    Okay. I'm tired...


    P.S. Thank you to elroy for an engaging discussion on this topic before I wrote down these thoughts!
  19. giovannino

    giovannino Senior Member

    Wow!:) Thank you for taking the time, Brian! No wonder you were tired at the end. Yours must be the most comprehensive, in-depth analysis of used to vs would ever written. I think WR should start giving out awards for posts like yours.

    Just one more query...

    Wouldn't you agree that it's not so much that the action of going to the movies was necessarily non-habitual in "I used to go to the movies" but rather that the issue of whether it was habitual or not is irrelevant, since the focus is on my not going to the movies anymore? Maybe I used to go to the movies all the time but then I developed claustrophobia:) and I'm listing all the things my condition prevents me from doing.

    Your explanation of why used to is more common in speech and would in writing/narrative makes perfect sense. Maybe one could say that the use of would is mostly confined to contexts where the time frame of a habitual action is circumscribed and clearly specified.
  20. brian

    brian Senior Member

    AmE (New Orleans)
    Yes, you're absolutely correct! I had thought about that before writing "non-habitual," but the reason I said "non-habitual" was to highlight the fact that in that case "used to" does not have describe a habitual action--but of course it still can. And of course, the action does have to be repeatable in some capacity--i.e., I can go to the movies more than once--but this should not be confused with habit. I suppose the better wording might be not-necessarily-habitual-but-still-repeatable action. :D

    Exactly. :thumbsup:
  21. fastech Member

    Italian, Italy
    My old english book explaines that in the following sentence:

    He was very restless. He would get up every five minutes, and walk to the window and then return to his work.

    we must use 'would' rather than 'used to'.
    Can someone confirm it and explain why?

    Thanks in advance!
  22. giovannino

    giovannino Senior Member

    I think this is a good example of a context in which "would" cannot be replaced with "used to". What is being described is not a past habit but a repeated, restless activity over a limited period of time.
  23. fastech Member

    Italian, Italy
    Ok, thanks giovannino!
    In another example, it explaines as 'would' and 'used to' are nearly always interchangables:
    Every night he would (used to) go out for a walk.

    But this sentence has the same meaning in both cases?

    Because I think that:
    Every night he would go out for a walk means today he still keep going out or in the past he went out for a short period/not constantly (therefore not for habit)?
    Every night he used to go out for a walk means his exits were a habit?

    Is it so?
  24. giovannino

    giovannino Senior Member

    Well, I think they are indeed interchangeable here, but I think you should read Brian's posts, in which he explains subtle nuances in the use of would vs used to.

    I also think you can only decide whether they're interchangeable if you consider the context in which the sentence is used, rather than the sentence on its own. Please take everything I say with a pinch of salt as I'm not a native speaker, but I think that, for example, if we add the following context:

    He used to go out for a walk every night but since his wife died he has become very depressed and hardly ever leaves his house

    maybe would doesn't fit here because the emphasis is on his not going out for walks anymore.

    On the other hand, if the sentence were part of a description of the man's lifestyle in a circumscribed timespan, in a novel, would might be more likely to be used, especially if more repeated actions are listed, possibly with used to used first and then would to avoid repetition.

    Finally, if you were recollecting about your grandfather, then would and used to would be perfectly interchangeable:

    Grandad and I were very close. We would/used to go out for a walk every night and talk non-stop

    But I'm sure Brian will pitch in and explain it much better than I can.
  25. Mauro86 Senior Member

    In school, when the teacher would talk about America, I would daydream about coming here. I would sit for hours watching American movies transfixed by my heroes like John Wayne.

    A scuola, quando il professore ________ dell'America, io avrei sognato ogni giorno di venire qui. Mi sarei seduto per ore a guardare film americani ammaliato dai miei eroi come John Wayne.

    Qui i miei dubbi riguardano l'utilizzo di "would": credo che dal primo dipendano poi gli altri... "would talk" come lo tradurreste voi in questo caso?
  26. zipp404

    zipp404 Senior Member

    Bilingual English|Español
    A scuola, quando il professore parlava / usava parlare dell'America, io sognava ogni giorno di venire qui. Me ne stavo seduto /ci rimanevo seduto per ore a guardare film americani ammaliato dai miei eroi come John Wayne.

    Would ha due significati e usi:

    1. Si usa per esprimere l'aspetto itterativo o durativo di uno stato o azione nel passato. In tale uso il significato è equivalente al significato dell'imperfetto (indicativo) in italiano.

    Esempio: When I was a child my parents would speak Spanish and English to me. ---> aspetto itterativo o durativo ---> usavano farlo spesso (parlare le due lingue)

    Da bambino i miei genitori mi parlavano in spagnolo e in inglese. ---> aspetto itterativo o durativo ---> usavano farlo spesso

    2. Would si usa anche per esprimere il risultato di una condizione in una frase ipotetica:

    Esempio: If I had twelve thousand dollars, I would get a new De Rosa racing bicycle.

    Se avessi US$12,000, (mi) comprerei una nuova bicicletta da corsa De Rosa.

    Nota: quello "I would" viene spesso espresso con la contrazione I'd la quale sta per I would.

    Esempio: If I could / if it were possible, I'd like to meet Moravia = Se potessi (farlo) / se fosse possibile, mi piacerebbe conoscere Moravia.

    Spero esserti stato utile:)
    Last edited: Nov 5, 2010
  27. Mauro86 Senior Member

    grazie mille, zipp, sei stato eccezionale! ;)

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