Habitual Past (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

boy being teased
Two examples of the habitual past: "The neighborhood kids used to tease me, and I would run away and hide.".

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In English grammar, the habitual past is a verb aspect that is used to refer to repeated events in the past. Also called past-habitual aspect or past-repetitive aspect.

The habitual past is indicated most frequently by the semi-auxiliary verb used to, the auxiliary would, or the simple past tense of a verb. Compare with the past progressive, which instead relies on "to be" to indicate continuous or ongoing action in the past.

Examples and Observations

  • "She would practice every day until she could hit that mark running, turning, jumping, sideways, or in any form she chose."(Linda Wallace Edwards, The Legend of White Sky. Tate Publishing, 2011)
  • "And when most everyone was fast asleep, he'd practice every single exercise he'd seen demonstrated earlier in the courtyard, feverishly absorbed in the perfection of his art."(Robert Joseph Banfelder, No Stranger Than I. Hudson View Press, 1990)
  • "I practiced every day, and if I couldn't find a buddy to play with I'd throw the ball against the barn wall and catch it."(Devon Mihesuah, The Lightning Shrikes. Lyons Press, 2004)
  • "When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn't work that way, so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me."(American comedian Emo Philips)
  • "i usta wonder who i'd be when I was a little girl in Indianapolis
  • sitting on doctors' porches with post-dawn pre-debs
  • (wondering would my aunt drag me to church Sunday) . . ." (Nikki Giovanni, "Adulthood." The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni. William Morrow, 1996)

Using Used To (Usta) and Would in the Habitual Past

"The auxiliary 'used to'--colloquially contracted to usta--is employed to signal the past-habitual or past-repetitive aspect, as in:

(32a) She used to talk more often​
(32b) He used to visit regularly

Unlike progressive aspectual auxiliaries, 'used to' cannot be preceded by other auxiliaries or followed by an -ing marked main verb. Thus compare:

(33a) She may keep go ing on and on.
(33b) *She may use(d) to go on and on.
(33c) *She used (to) going on and on.
(33d) She has kept working.
(33e) *She has use(d) to work.

. . . [M]any of the progressive aspectuals can also code a habitual sense. Thus, when in the past tense, they also code the habitual past.

"The modal auxiliary 'would' can also be used to render the habitual past. This usage is probably more colloquial:

(34a) One would come in and look around and . . .
(34b) She would eat two loaves a day . . .
(34c) They'd work real hard for an hour, then quit and . . .

There is a subtle semantic difference between 'used to' and 'would,' in that the former implies termination of the past habit, while the latter does not." (Talmy Givón, English Grammar: A Function-Based Introduction. John Benjamins, 1993)

Factors Influencing the Choice of Habitual-Past Forms

"The three main forms used to express habitual past situations in English--used to, would and the simple past--are often, but not always, interchangeable. Various factors affecting the choice of form have been suggested in the literature, but few empirical investigations have been devoted to all three forms. One exception is a recent study by [Sali] Tagliamonte and [Helen] Lawrence ["I Used to Dance . . ." in Journal of English Linguistics 28: 324-353] (2000) who examined various factors influencing the choice of habitual form in a corpus of recorded British English conversations. Starting from the observation that the choice of expression is mainly determined by the interaction of two factors, the 'aktionsart' of the verb (stative vs. dynamic) and some contextual indication of time (frequency or past time), they distinguish four basic habitual situations in which one, two, or all three variants seem to be permitted. . . .

"Using Comrie's definition to identify habitual situations in their corpus, Tagliamonte and Lawrence found that 70% of the situations were realised by the simple past, 19% by used to, 6% by would and the remaining 5% by various other constructions, such as the progressive form and combinations with verbs like tend to, keep (on), etc. . . .

"[I]n the situations examined, used to tended to be favored with 1st person subjects, when it occurred initially in a sequence of habitual events in discourse and when it did not occur in a sequence, but was disfavoured in negative clauses, with stative verbs, and with inanimate subjects. Would tended to be favored with 3rd person subjects, in situations of short duration, non-initially in sequences and (weakly) in negative clauses. The simple past tended to be favored in negative clauses, with stative verbs and inanimate subjects, sequence-internally, and (weakly) in situations of short duration and with frequency adverbials."

(Bengt Altenberg, "Expressing Past Habit in English and Swedish: A Corpus-Based Contrastive Study." Functional Perspectives on Grammar and Discourse: In Honour of Angela Downing, ed. by Christopher S. Butler, Raquel Hidalgo Downing, and Julia Lavid. John Benjamins, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Habitual Past (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/habitual-past-grammar-1690829. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Habitual Past (Grammar). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/habitual-past-grammar-1690829 Nordquist, Richard. "Habitual Past (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/habitual-past-grammar-1690829 (accessed March 23, 2023).