January 15

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Learn How to Talk About Past Habits With 3 Different Grammatical Forms in Your Cambridge Exam – Podcast

Hi everyone, you’re listening to Cambridge Exam Coach, a podcast for learners of English.

I’m Kristian, your host, and in this episode we’re talking about 3 different grammatical forms we use to talk about past habits.

I hardly ever hear learners of English use these 3 grammatical forms when they talk about their lives, and that’s a real pity.

Because if you use these structures, your English will sound more natural. Moreover, these structures make speaking way more fun and engaging.

“So, which grammatical forms are you talking about then, Kristian?” (I hear you thinking)

The grammar we are looking at in this episode is to describe past habitual behaviour: ways of talking about things in the past that happened regularly, typically, always or usually.

For example,

What you usually did when you were a child. –> I would play football with my friends

What your best friend always did when you were playing together. –> He used to make funny noises which made me laugh.

What you regularly did when you were at high school. –> I regularly used to buy a snack during my lunch break.

What typically happened in your favourite TV series. –> Kramer would make a funny entrance in Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment

 

3 Ways to Talk About Habitual Behaviour in the Past

There are at least 3 ways we can talk about habitual behaviour in the past:

  1. Would + bare infinitive
  2. Used to (+bare infinitive)
  3. Past continuous tense + always

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Kristian, I’ve studied this grammar before.”

Yes, I’m aware. It comes up in any decent grammar book. So you might think you already know this. But to be honest, I hardly ever hear my students using these structures.

So let’s repeat it today, because you need to use this if you want to sound like a native speaker. Also, it is one of the things that quite often comes up in the reading / use of English part of the Cambridge exam.

But, before we dive into ‘would + bare infinitive’, ‘used to’ and ‘past continuous tense + always’, I want to briefly mention the past tenses we’re not going discuss today.

Much of the time when we’re describing the past, we are talking about things that happened just once. Like when we tell stories or anecdotes using narrative tenses. E.g. if you tell your friend about the things you did in the morning after a late night out:

I woke up at 10am and felt groggy. I couldn’t remember much of what I had done at my best friend’s birthday party last night. Oh well, it didn’t matter. It was time to get up and get ready for a brand new day. Before I got out of bed, I had put on my glasses. Strangely enough, I still stumbled on my way to the bathroom, but thankfully I didn’t fall flat on my face. After I’d taken a shower I went to the kitchen, made myself a nice cup of joe, and enjoyed the tranquillity of my own flat.

All those verbs were things that just happened once in the past. Most verbs are in the past simple, and some are in the past perfect to describe events which took place before the main events of the story.

But… as mentioned before, those narrative tenses are not what I want to talk about today. Today I want to talk about recurring past events. The grammar we use here is different and you need to know this.

So, first of all, let’s sum up the ways we talk about recurring past actions.

1. Used to + bare infinitive

You’ve probably used this structure before. It’s not to difficult. But there are still some things worth considering.

Let’s looks at some examples,

I used to live in London.

I didn’t use to smoke when I was a teenager.

Did you use to watch Friends?

Be careful though, negative sentences and questions do NOT include the ‘d’. However, the pronunciation of “use to” and “used to” is exactly the same. The ‘d’ gets lost. So, it’s “yoostu”.

It’s not enough to know the grammar rules. You should actually use it. That’s why I’ve created loads of example sentences. You can repeat these after me in order to kickstart your speaking practice, okay? Here we go!

When I lived in Rotterdam I used to have a cat.

She used to wait for me at the door when I arrived home.

My nephew used to feed my cat when he was at my place for a sleep-over.

It’s funny, I actually didn’t use to like cats, but once in my life I had a girlfriend who had a cat, and well, long story short, now I like cats.

Did you use to have a cat? Did you use to have a dog? Did you use to have a pet?

“Used to” + state/action verbs

We use “used to” with both state and action verbs.

Here are some examples with state verbs:

I used to believe her but now I know better.

I used to have a Nintendo 64 but I gave it away.

I used to think he was a great guy but now I know the truth.

Here are some examples with action verbs:

I used to smoke cigarettes but I gave up.

I used to play football twice a week.

I didn’t use to speak English.

Alright, that’s enough about ‘used to’. Please, remember the structure: ‘used to + bare infinitive’. There are other ways to use used to, but I don’t want to get into that right now, because I want to focus only on talking about past habits.

2. Would + bare infinitive

This grammatical structure is far harder to notice when listening to native speakers, and yet extremely common. I hardly ever hear my students using this structure when talking about the past.

We use ‘would + bare infinitive’ to talk about things that happened again and again.

It’s almost invisible when you’re listening, because the ‘would’ is contracted and often hardly pronounced at all. It can sound like native speakers are just using present simple.

For example,

We do our homework first, then play football. (present simple)

We’d do our homework first, then play football.

So it’s not obvious but native speakers use it all the time. And so should you!

But be careful! Don’t use ‘would’ with state verbs.

I used to live in Rotterdam. NOT: I’d live in Rotterdam.

I used to believe in Santa. (not: I’d believe in Santa)

I used to have a Super Nintendo. (not: I’d have a Super Nintendo)

I used to think it was a good CD. (not: I’d think it was a good CD)

(I’m giving myself away now as an old dinosaur with these examples about a CD and a Super Nintendo…)

All the wrong examples of “would” with a state verb sound like you’re using a second conditional, which is something completely different, because then you’re talking about the present or future.

For example, “If he had more money, he would have more problems.”

OK, enough about would + bare infinitive. Let’s move on to the third option:

3. Past continuous with always

We use ‘was always ing’ to describe typical/habitual behaviour. When people remember loved ones who have died, they use this structure a lot. Here are some examples:

She was always smiling and laughing.

She was always helping out others.

He was always willing to listen to our problems.

This structure is also used to describe irritating behaviour or negative emotions about repeated past actions.

For example,

My colleague was always complaining about all the work she had to do.

My cousin was always going on about her ex-boyfriend.

My cat was always scratching the wallpaper in my flat.

Watch out! We cannot use state verbs with continuous tenses. So not “I was always believing in Santa Claus” but “I used to believe in Santa Claus”.

OK then, that’s it for ‘past continuous with always’.

Practice

Now, I’d like to give you an exercise that could really help you. Remember that it’s important not just to understand language but to be able to use it. English is not just something you know, it’s something you can do.

Here’s what I’d like you to do. I’m going to ask you some questions and you can write down some answers and say them out loud. Even if you don’t say the sentences out loud, saying them in your head is almost as good.

Try to use “used to”, “would” and “past continuous with always”. One thing you should avoid doing is using “would” or “past continuous” with state verbs. So don’t write things like “When I was young I would believe in Santa” but write “When I was young I used to believe in Santa.”

You can make up your answers. They don’t have to be true. Sometimes using your creativity and coming up with silly examples can be a fun way of making sure things like grammar don’t get boring!

Questions

Did you have a best friend when you were a child? (if you didn’t have a best friend, you can either use your imagination or think of a pet or family member)

Here we go:

What was your best friend like?

Where did he/she used to live? How did this affect your friendship?

What did you usually play with each other?

What did he/she usually do when you were eating together?

What did he/she tend to do when he/she was at school with you?

Did he/she ever do anything annoying or irritating?

If you want feedback on your sentences, or you want more practice with these 3 grammatical structures, just send me an email and I’ll help you in the best way possible.

The End! What Are Your Thoughts?

Alright, that’s a wrap! I hope this was relevant and useful for you, and I hope you enjoyed listening to this episode.

Let me know your thoughts on this episode. It helps me to create better and better content for you in the future, so it’s really useful if you send me an email or leave a comment on the blog or Facebook/LinkedIn.

For now I want to wish you a pleasant day (or night).

And please, take care of yourself, and each other, alright?

Speak soon, bye bye!

About the author 

Kristian

Kristian is from The Netherlands, but he lives in Prague, Czechia. He is a CELTA qualified teacher who passed the Cambridge C2 Proficiency exam with grade A. When he's not working, he likes to chill out with music, podcasts or an audiobook.


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