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Would vs. Used To

Observant writers and grammarians see words as more than letters and syllables that help to form an idea. We view them as paring knives and brush strokes that define and shape thoughts that connect with other people.

For that reason, we pay close attention to word choices and their nuances. Common speech sometimes switches certain words to mean the same things. In thoughtful writing, however, we understand the differences and apply them for more-exact meanings.

Would and used to are a pair that can sometimes confuse in referring to past actions that are now concluded. They tend to be swapped freely when in certain contexts they should maintain separate duties. The following guidelines will help distinguish them.

1. Would should be used only if the past time frame is established up front. Used to does not require this.

Examples
Grammatical: We used to go to the movies every Saturday when I was a kid back in the ’70s.

Not grammatical: We would go to the movies every Saturday when I was a kid back in the ’70s.

Note the difference in the second example if we introduce the time early on:

Grammatical: When I was a kid back in the ’70s, we would go to the movies every Saturday.

By starting the sentence in the past, we set up the grammatical inclusion of would.

2. Would is not used with stative verbs, i.e., those that describe a state (e.g., feel, love, know) rather than an activity (e.g., run, jump, write).

Examples
Grammatical: When I worked at the arena, I used to know the booking agent who could get backstage VIP passes for me and my friends.

Not grammatical: When I worked at the arena, I would know the booking agent who could get backstage VIP passes for me and my friends.

3. Used to describes a past state in a simple, declarative statement, where would grammatically would not function.

Examples
Grammatical in the past tense: I used to be a football running back.

Not grammatical in the past tense: I would be a football running back.

Grammatical in the past tense: She used to lead the company as its CEO.
Not grammatical in the past tense: She would lead the company as its CEO.

Attention to subtleties differentiates careful writers from casual ones. Understanding when and how to apply would and used to further shows your mastery of English in composing crisp and meaningful content.

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Pop Quiz

Choose the grammatical use of would or used to in the following sentences. Answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1) When he was a supervisor at his last job, he (would / used to) close the warehouse at 6 p.m. sharp.

2) We (would / used to) play hopscotch every day during the summer.

3) Call me crazy, but when I was in college I (would / used to) love to write the longest papers in all of my classes.

4) Work (would / used to) get so busy that we (would / used to) skip lunch at least twice a week.

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Wordplay


Pop Quiz Answers

1) When he was a supervisor at his last job, he would close the warehouse at 6 p.m. sharp.

2) We used to play hopscotch every day during the summer.

3) Call me crazy, but when I was in college I used to love to write the longest papers in all of my classes.

4) Work used to get so busy that we would skip lunch at least twice a week.

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