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What tense should be used here?

I think she is so straightforward with everyone because she

  1. used to live on her own for 5 years.
  2. has lived on her own for 5 years.
  3. lived on her own for 5 years.
  4. was living on her own for 5 years.

Given the person is not living alone anymore. (btw, it's just an imaginary situation but it still bugs me)

I think a few of the options could be appropriate. Though, 2. sounds the best to me. Meaning that the experience has left an impact in her way of approaching other people.

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All of them are grammatically correct but not necessarily semantically correct (that is, they don't mean the correct thing).

  1. "used to live on her own" is appropriate; "used to" means that this is something she did in the past.
  2. "has lived on her own" is not correct, because you said the person does not live on her own now. "has lived" is the present perfect tense, which is used to describe an action that began in the past, but the effects of which continue until the present.
  3. "lived on her own" is appropriate, because it's the simple past, indicating something completely in the past.
  4. "was living on her own" is the past continuous tense and is not really correct because it describes an action in the past that was not completed. You will hear people sometimes speak informally like this, but it's better used to describe an action that was going on at a point in the past when something else happened, like "When Jim arrived, Sarah was living on her own."
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Options 3 or 4 are possible.

The first option: "She used to live on her own" is talking about her current state: She is now a person who lived on her own. So the sentence describes the state of the person now, and so putting a time expression with them is awkward.

You will sometimes hear native speakers using expressions like "She has lived on her own for five years". It would mean that she lived on her own in the five years up to now. Which is subtly different from the meaning you want to give.

The second two expression are past tense, they are about past actions and states. Since "to live" expresses a state (rather than an action) you can choose simple past, or past continuous, and there is very little difference in meaning.

The differences are minor, and would be easily forgiven by listeners.

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Actually, all of these are grammatically fine. Which you use can depend on personal preference and what exactly you want to say.

There are subtle distinctions between each. "Used to live on her own" and "lived on her own" are more or less the same. "Was living on her own" is used when you want to talk about something that happened at the same time:

Ten years ago, she was living on her own when the big earthquake hit the city.

The only one that's incorrect for the context is #2. The present perfect can be used to imply either an ongoing situation or a life experience, depending on how it's presented.

She visits charity shops because she has been poor for many years. (ongoing)

She likes to donate to charities because she has been poor and knows what it's like. (life experience)

When you add a time frame (e.g. "for many years") it generally implies the situation is still true. You can use the past perfect ("had lived on her own") but this is more often used establish a temporal relationship with another event:

She had lived on her own most of her life, before she got married.

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Other native speakers have disagreed with me about this, but I find used to {verb} incompatible with phrases like for five years. Why? Because used to implies "does not do so any longer" and that implication is incompatible with past durations.

She used to live on her own but doesn't any longer for five years.marginal at best, to my ear

For five years, she used to live on her own. marginal at best

Five years ago she used to lived on her own. grammatical

She lived on her own for five years. grammatical

She used to live on her own (but doesn't any longer|but doesn't now). grammatical

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