Coat of Arms of the City of York
Coat of Arms of the City of York 


Tagliamonte (Tagliamonte and Lawrence, 2000), explains that the habitual past (henceforth HP) can be expressed by the preterit, used to and would, each of which can be employed to describe "a situation which existed for a period of time but is no longer the case". For example:

(1) We had either an old scruff tennis ball that somebody had thrown out, or a rubber ball of some sort and we used to kick it around, sometimes we'd just get newspapers , double them over and turn them and then tie them with string.


Historical Aspect

Used to and would appeared in the English at different points in time and from different language sources:

Used to

The verb is said to be an adaptation of the Old French verb user meaning, "to follow a usage or custom", which became a regular feature of the English language some time around 1400. Unlike the present-day (see below), during the 16th century it had a present tense form, i.e. use to / uses to (see Bybee et al 1994: 155-6). Used to came to be employed as a marker of the HP around the beginning of the 17th century.


This verb form has a much earlier pedigree being recorded in both the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons and the Middle English of Chaucer (þ is the Old English character "thorn" which equates to present-day "th"):

(2) Þonne he swulces hwaet secgan wolde.:

"Then he would tell of such things."

(Beowulf; cited by Bybee et al, 1994:157)


(3) Than wolde he speke no word but Latyn.

(Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The General Prologue, of the Summoner)


Contemporary English Forms of the Habitual Past

Used to

Employed in the sense "to be in the habit of" (see e.g. Barber 1976: 25) or " a habit or state that existed in the past"(Quirk et al 1985: 140). This form is claimed to be one of the most common habitual constructions and used in preference to the preterite. Having no present tense form in present-day English its use is confined to the past tense. It is maintained that, whilst there has been little apparent change in its meaning since its adoption into the English language, its usage has been extended. That is to say: from employment with solely human subjects to subjects of all kinds; and from describing a purely habitual action to employment with stative verbs (Bybee et al, 1994; Visser, 1963: 73). For example:

Animate / inanimate subjects

(4) Mrs Caffrey's father worked on the railway and he used to walk from here to York station.

(5) It used to be called VernAir.

Stative / non-stative verbs

(6) I used to enjoy school.

(7) There's this pond that we used to fish them out of.

Furthermore, used to cannot be negated as in *usedn't to (Palmer, 1979: 9) and relies on either "DO-support" (Jørgensen, 1988: 351) or is negated by never e.g.:

(8) I didn't use to swim

(9) Cos I never used to go to football there.



This verb form is frequently spoken of as being quite near to the meaning of used to and is generally defined as embodying the notion of "personal habits or characteristic behaviour"(Quirk et al !985:228).


Research Findings

The purpose of this research was to establish, in Tagliamonte's own words, "how, why and where a speaker uses used to, would or the preterit for expressing real-world situations with HABITUAL PAST meaning. She also wanted to examine "which factors constrain the distribution and patterning of the different morphological forms (used to, would, preterit) and to what degree."

Her findings suggest almost 70% of HP contexts are achieved via the preterite (especially in the case of inanimate subjects). Used to is employed only 19% of the time and would 6%. Other forms of expressing the HP include such structures as kept on + the present participle. For example:

(10) [He] kept on having to stop.

More specifically Tagliamonte notes that, inter alia:



Tagliamonte's views the findings relating to the employment of used to and the preterit with, respectively, stative and non-stative verbs as a corroboration of the argument put forward by Brinton (1988:52). That is "although past states and passed habits may be encoded with either simple form (preterit) or the used to construction, they refer to quite different situations." In effect, the former is employed to describe states and the latter to express "habitual events".

In her concluding remarks regarding HP forms, Tagliamonte expresses the view that more research is still required in order to substantiate her findings.



Barber, C. L. (1976) Early Modern English, London: Deutsch.

Brinton, L. J. (1988) The development of English aspectual systems, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bybee, J. L., Perkins, R. D. and Pagliuca, W. (1994) The evolution of grammar: Tense, aspect, and modality in the languages of the world, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dennison, D. (1993) English historical syntax, Harlow, Essex: Longman.

Jørgensen, E. (1988) Used to (+ infinitive). In English Studies 69(4):348-354.

Palmer, F. R. (1979) Modality and the English modals, New York: Longman Group Ltd.

Quirk, R., Greenbaum, S., Leech, G. and Svartvik, J. (1985) A comprehensive grammar of the English language, New York: Longman.

Tagliamonte, S. and Lawrence, H. (2000) "I used to dance, but I don't dance now.": The Habitual Past in English. Journal of English Linguistics, 28(4): 323-353.

Visser, F. T. (1963-73) An historical syntax of the English language, Leiden: E. J. Brill.