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Would vs. Used To

What is the difference between says “I would” and “I used to” when talking about past habits. Someone suggested to me the difference is that “I used to” expresses an event that had regularly occured while “I would” expresses something that happened only occasionaly. However, this does not seem to be true in all cases. The particular sentence I was confused about is this:

When she was young, she would sing at the church. When she was young, she used to sing at the church.

In either case the frequency which she sang at the church is not specified. So what is the difference?

  • June 21, 2004
  • Posted by jeff
  • Filed in Grammar

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would is in the conditional tense. this means that she only sang at church only on the condition of being a kid. the conditional tense does not automatically state the time by itself. without the dependent clause of "when she was young" you wouldn't have known if she would sing in church now, tomorrow or when she was young. By itself it does not establish time; only the intended action.

on the other hand, 'used to' is in the past perfect tense. it basically indicates that u regularly did something in the past with or without a dependant clause condition bound to it. eg. i used to play the piano. with that said, u can automatically assume that i played piano when i was younger.

haha..sorry i'm not very good at explaining this. i learnt this in french.. hahaha :P

Ivy June 22, 2004, 7:30am

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What I've learned is: "Subject + used to + verb" indicates an activity or a state which does not occur any more. "When she was young, she used to sing at the church." means that she did it ONLY when she was young and she does not do it any longer.
"Would" is basically the past tense of "will". It is a modal verb as well. It is a bit unclear what the speaker means when we have only one sentence such as "When she was young, she would sing at the church." in my opinion. (Does “would” in there mean she did it frequently? Or what?)
As a conditional modal verb, "would" however is almost always companied with "if". (If... would...)

Learnt native speakers! HELP!

goossun June 22, 2004, 8:05am

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Heh, actually I am a native speaker but I wasn't too sure how I could explain the difference. I just speak English, I don't know how it works. :)

What Ivy said makes sense to me. When you break it down and think about the individual parts it seems less complicated.


Jeff June 23, 2004, 1:31am

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When attached to a verb like "sing," "used to" and "would" are interchangeable (or so I believe), in that they both describe a repeated action in the past (usually distant past, as opposed to, say, yesterday). "Used to" can be used in other sentences to describe a past state, such as "I used to live in that house" (not "I would live in that house" ), "I used to be a baker," or "I used to have a cat."

Also, as Ivy pointed out, "would" does not by itself mean that you are describing something in the past. You can, for example, say "she would sing at the church, but she has a cold."

Jun-Dai June 23, 2004, 7:30am

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I'm a native speaker and I would say that the meanings of the two are identical but that the "would" construction is a little more formal, or poetic while the "used to" construction is more commonplace.

qov July 6, 2004, 5:39pm

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Qov is right: 'I would' is elevated language. At least, that's how it seems to me.

Colin July 25, 2004, 10:06am

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Used to means that you (or she) don't (or doeasn't ) anymore, and often implies some feeling of regret when used in the first person (i wish were still playing piano), with apropriate tone.

'Would' in "when she was younger, she would play piano at church", is used to describe something that was a regular occurance, and further frequency (or lack there of) could be emphasied with "sometimes" or "often". Basically, you're making a general statement about the past.

gartlan_s September 16, 2004, 10:39pm

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