used to or would [habitual actions vs repeated actions]


Senior Member
I was taught that when takling about the past habitual actions, I should use ' used to and when talking about repeated past actions, I can use both ' used to' and ' would'. My question is to me habitual actions and repeated past actions seem to be the same. For example, I used to play a lot of games on the computer seems to indicate both habitual actions and repeated actions. So I think, I can replace 'used to ' with ' would'. But my teacher says no. How do you know if it is repeated actions and habitual actions? Another example is I used to drink coffee a lot. Is it a habitual actions or repeated action? I am very confused.
  • Giorgio Spizzi

    Senior Member
    Hullo, hal.

    If I were you I'd try to let the habitual/repeated dog lie.

    If you say I used to play a lot of games on the computer your listener will normally infer that you don't do it any longer.

    If you say I would play a lot of games on the computer your listener will think you're expressing a hypothesis and a wish (eg. ... if I had one).

    There'a a lot more things that ought to be said about the differences (and similarities) of used to and would, though. Hopefully, I started the ball rolling.

    GS :)

    suzi br

    Senior Member
    English / England
    This is a fascinating question because when I try testing out sentences in my own mind to see what the patterns are I do not see them being clear cut.

    We certainly can use the pair interchangeably in some contexts, but not in others ... and I agree that the "rule" about habitual or repeated actions which you have been taught does not ring any bells for me.

    My guidance would be to stick with used to, unless you have seen "would" used in the same sort of place yourself.


    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    No, Giorgio, halmom is specifically talking about "would" in the context of past actions. Your "I would ... if ..." is a completely different situation.

    I used to drink a lot of coffee. I would have two mugfuls before breakfast, one during breakfast, and another before getting the bus to work. There was a coffee shop just next to my office, so as soon as I got off the bus, I would pop in to buy a cup, which I would take to my desk.

    Giorgio Spizzi

    Senior Member
    Hullo, Edinburgher.

    Obviously, I was not thinking of the whole of the hypothetical sentence: I was only trying to imagine what the listener's impression would be if he read/heard the decontextualized sentence "I would play a lot of games on the computer".
    (As for usage, I agree with suzi: the air is rather rarified in this territory.)
    Anyway, I think your example is very informative: the would sentences appear to be "second" vis-à-vis the used to ones — used to seems to help create a sort of background against which all the subsequent expression employed to narrate repeated past actions/events/processes are seen.
    I also believe the two expressions only rarely can be used interchangeably.