According to Practical English Usage, "We use used to, not would, to talk about regular and important habitual behaviour.

Robert used to play a lot of football. (NOT Robert would play ...)

I used to smoke. (NOT I would smoke ...)"

I don't understand why used to can't be replaced with would in the examples above since they express the idea of repeated actions to which both used to and would can refer to.

By the way, what does important habitual behaviour exactly mean?

  • @Cardinal: Thanks for your comments. I went through that page before asking my question but couldn't find an answer. – M.N May 11 '17 at 7:32
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    "Would" can in certain contexts be used to indicate a serial state, as in Whenever he heard his parents coming home, he would quickly put out his cigarette. – BillJ May 11 '17 at 7:34
  • @BillJ I said that earlier, but for some reason I deleted my comment. In fact, I think if there is a clear time reference, we can use would and "used to" interchangeably. "when I was a college student, I would smoke". Am I right? – Cardinal May 11 '17 at 7:41
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    @Cardinal You're right; once you establish the time frame is in the past, they become interchangeable. – Cantalouping May 11 '17 at 8:23
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    @Cardinal They are not necessarily interchangeable, since the meaning can be different, and often it becomes ungrammatical. In your example, "would" does not mean the same as "I used to smoke". – BillJ May 11 '17 at 9:39

Problem 1:

  • Would could lead the listener/reader to believe there's an if coming up or in context that may have been missed. If you say the time, this is mitigated.

Used to doesn't hook into any if unless explicitly expressed.

Robert used to play a lot of football.

Robert would play a lot of football. [If ... something possibly?]

Back in 1980 Robert would play a lot of football. [No if expected]

Problem 2:

  • Would does not imply that Robert isn't playing football anymore. This is part of the meaning of used to.

In 1980 Robert would play a lot of football. (He might still play football)

In 1980 Robert used to play football. (He does something else now)

  • Thanks for your answer, but how do we know that "Robert might still play football" now? Because as far as I know "would" is used to talk about typical actions or or activities during a period IN THE PAST. So how do you relate it to the present? – M.N May 11 '17 at 14:54
  • Right, so if you say "X would Y", it only tells us what he was doing in the past, and doesn't tell us anything about the present without additional information. Whereas "X used to Y" strongly implies X is not doing Y now without additional information. – LawrenceC May 11 '17 at 14:57

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