English as a Second Language/Used to or would?


QUESTION: Dear Shannon,

1. I need to know why "used to" is the only correct word and "would" is wrong: "John didn't have a car; he used to walk home."

* 'Used to' is used to talk about states or repeated actions in the past
* 'Would' is used to talk about repeated habits in the past (not states).

2. "The train stopped because the windscreen wiper was broken". Is "was broken" passive voice or just the verb to be plus the past participle used as an adjective. Is "had (been) broken" possible?

Thanks a lot for your continuous support.

God bless you!

Best regards,
Antoine Ghannoum

ANSWER: 1. I haven't looked up the grammar behind this yet, but I can tell you:
    a. you need more than a simple sentence in order to use "would," such as prepositional phrases, etc.  Otherwise, the use of "would" becomes confusing for the reader.
    b. There is a slight difference in meaning.  "Used to," as stated, is for states or repeated ACTIONS in the past.  "Would" is for repeated HABITS. Sometimes an action is a habit, and so both "would" or "used to" work fine.  Other times, the focus is more on an action or a state, forcing us to prefer "used to."

Let me provide an example:

I used to be happy.  (Perfect)
I would be happy.  (no.  Meaning has changed, now.  When would + state is used, we are forcing a different understanding of would....{I would be happy if my sister comes for a visit}.

I used to drive to work on rainy days when I was a kid. (yes)
I would drive to work on rainy days when I was a kid. (yes)
I used to drive. (yes)
I would drive.  (no.  Again, it is too short and we are confusing the usage)

2. "was broken" is the verb to be plus the past participle used as an adjective and "had (been) broken" is possible, but that would imply the train had been traveling for some time before it realized the wiper was broken (maybe it started to rain).  The best choice is "was broken" since it doesn't require any special understanding of when it happened.  Using "broke" would, of course, imply that it happened at the moment the train stopped moving (yes, the train stopped moving because of the wiper, but both events still happened simultaneously).

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: For question 1 above, could you please explain (with examples) the difference(s) between  states, actions and habits? This would help understand the point much better. Thanks!

A state would be something less tangible, such as an emotion or quality.

I used to be young.
She used to be so beautiful.
He used to be athletic.

I guess there isn't such a huge difference between habits and repeated actions, but you have to be focused on the intent of your sentence.  Maybe it's easier to forget the rule and think of states and things that happened in the past without a specific starting/stopping point (and don't take me too literally, I know you will find exceptions to this rule) as "used to" cases.  The truth is you're going to be able to use "used to" in any case you can use "would" and is much more common.

You can say, "I used to live in London."
But you cannot say, "I would live in London."

You can say, "I used to smoke," but not "I would smoke."

You can say, "I used to ride my bike to school every day," and "I would ride my bike to school every day."  You couldn't say, "I would ride my bike," but you could say "I used to ride my bike."

As I mentioned before, you'll need more with "would" and as far as I know, that "more" includes a phrase that mentions how long ago the action took place (and usually under what circumstances), making it clear it no longer happens in the present.  However, don't forget that even in such a case, it is ok to use "used to."


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Shannon Cole


I can answer questions related to learning the English and Spanish language.


I have taught ESL and Spanish since 1998 at the university and middle school levels. I am a native of the U.S., and have taught in both the U.S. and Mexico.

I am owner and operator of www.coleinstitute.com, an online language school.

Georgia TESOL in Action (1999)

B.A. in Spanish; M.Ed. in Language Education

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I have clients worldwide, some who want their documents proofread, and others who take lessons with me through the Internet. Some work at high-profile companies and government organizations. Besides the U.S. and Mexico, my recent students come from South Korea, Switzerland, Turkey, Colombia, Russia, Italy, Paraguay, China, Japan, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia.

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