‘Used to’ vs. ‘would’ in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

Both “would” and “used to” can be used to speak about an activity that someone did regularly long time ago:

Every Sunday, I used to go jogging.
Every Sunday, I would go jogging.

The sentences above mean basically the same. However, there is an important difference between “used to” and “would”; while “used to” can be used to speak about past states, “would” cannot:

When I was a child, I used to live in London. (correct)
When I was a child, I would live in London. (wrong?)

(The latter sentence would only make sense if you periodically moved from and to London and would require further context for clarification.) This includes also states of mind:

When I was little, I used to love chocolate. (correct)
When I was little, I would love chocolate. (wrong)

There is also another important difference: “would” can only be used when it is clear that you are speaking (or writing) about something that happened in the past by the time you get to it in a sentence. In our first example, the combination of “Every Sunday” and “would” makes it clear that we speak about the past, since the conditional wouldn’t make sense here. Similarly, we can say both:

When I was a student, I would go to a lot of parties.
When I was a student, I used to go to a lot of parties.

When the order of “when I was a student” and the rest of the sentence is reversed, using “would” is not appropriate because it would likely be misunderstood as the conditional:

I used to go to a lot of parties when I was a student. (correct)
I would go to a lot of parties when I was a student. (inappropriate)

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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