Using “used to” and “would” to Talk About the Past

It is so important in the IELTS exam to be able to talk about the past clearly and precisely. Unfortunately, English can be rather difficult to master when it comes to tenses. But don’t worry! Practice makes perfect!

We can use the phrases “used to” and “would” to talk about things that we did in the past. Often, they are interchangeable. For example:

When I was young, I would walk to school every day.

When I was young, I used to walk to school every day.

However, sometimes they are not interchangeable. “Used to” can be used to talk about actions or states that happened in our past, but “would” can only be used to talk about actions. It can’t be used to talk about states:

I used to believe in Santa Claus.

I would believe in Santa Claus.

Here, the verb “believe” refers to state rather than an action, so we cannot use “would” with it to talk about the past.


Let’s look at a common IELTS question and how we might answer it with used to/would:

Did you have any pets when you were a child?

Yes, actually I used to have a few pets. I had a dog who would bark all night, and a cat that used to be really aggressive.


Here’s a PowerPoint presentation that gives more useful information (and practice) on how to use “used to” and “would” to talk about the past.

Author: David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and the founder/editor of Beatdom literary journal. He lives and works in rural China, and loves to travel. He has worked as an IELTS tutor since 2010, has completed both TEFL and CELTA courses, and has a certificate from Cambridge for Teaching Writing. In 2018, he wrote the popular IELTS handbook, Grammar for IELTS Writing. His other IELTS website is called IELTS Teaching.

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