Used to and would are dynamic verbs that can be used to talk about ‘past habits’. In a new song called “Hotline Bling”, does the singer say …
- “You used to call me on my cell phone.”
- “You would call me on my cell phone.”
If you chose option “a”, you are right. However, is there any difference between them?
Modal verbs have many characteristics that distinguish them from other types of verbs. Most modals (such as “would” for the sake of this post) can be used in association with the past, as well as being used to talk about hypothetical situations with a present or future time reference. But let’s stick to the past.
Used to, according to the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, is a semi-modal (also called a “periphrastic modal” or “quasi-modal” because it functions like a modal verb and can usually be paraphrased with a modal”).
When teaching a lesson on past habits, ‘Used to’ is preferable to ‘would’. Because most coursebooks only deal with ‘used to’, I believed it meant that this structure was more frequent. This is also reflected in the classroom, when we expect our students to spend the entire production stage of a lesson talking about past habits only using ‘used to’. This reminds me of a conversation I had with Luke Meddings and Ken Lackman at a TESL Toronto conference, when we talked about the irrational desire to control the language our students use in class. How can one only use ‘used to’ when talking about past habits? “We can also use would”, someone would say.
What does Corpora tells us?
‘Would’ is used three times more often than ‘used to’ when describing past habits. But why do coursebooks almost never discuss this? Why do we limit the language students can use in the classroom?
‘Used to’ is a conversation starter. We normally switch to would when we continue describing the past habit in question.
“She used to call me on my cell phone. We would talk for hours. We would talk about all kinds of things …”
So, should we sing the above song lyric as: “You would call me on my cell phone”?
“Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).” Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Web. 31 Oct. 2015.
Biber, D., Conrad, S., & Leech, G. N. (2002). Longman student grammar of spoken and written English. Harlow, Essex: Longman.