Could someone explain whether the following sentences have different meanings?

"Lisa used to have long hair when she was a child"

"Lisa had long hair when she was a child"


Depending on the context, they could mean the same thing or two separate things. For starters, "used to" usually implies the imperfect tense in most Romance languages (if that should be what you speak) whereas "had" is usually the simple past in English. "Used to" gives the feeling that Lisa had long hair over a long period of time, perhaps her whole childhood or most of her childhood, whereas "had" in your second example can mean that there was one time or perhaps a few instances during her childhood that Lisa had long hair, but they were few and far between. In French, the imperfect would be used here because, chances are, this wasn't a one-off, that is, a one-time occurrence:

"Elle avait les cheveux longs quand elle était enfant." ("She used to have long hair when she was a child.")

However, in English, depending on the context, "had" can be used as the simple past and imperfect in this situation, but "used to" denotes the imperfectness in English; no contextualization is needed.

  • # Nicholas. Thank you very much. Well, still I am not so familiar when can I use "used to", "had" or just past simple. I cannot use correct a word in the following situation also. Imagine I am a teacher. Five years ago I taught the subject A and since then I have not been teaching that subject (I have been teaching other subjects). In this situation can I say "I used to teach the subject A five year ago" or should I use past simple "I taught the subject A five year ago" – alex Nov 22 '17 at 4:13
  • Well "had" is the past simple. What language is your mother tongue? In your examples, both are fine and mean the same thing in English; however, most people would use the second one with the past simple since you have stated a specific time: "Oh really, I used to teach English. In fact, I taught it five years ago, but I had to stop teaching it because of personal reasons." – Nick Nov 22 '17 at 4:36
  • "Yes, I used to teach English." "Really, when did you use to teach it?" "I used to teach it (or taught it) 5 years ago. In fact, I was teaching English when I got sick. After I had recovered from my ailment, I decided to retire from teaching English. I can't believe it was five years ago that I last taught English. Do you know that I had been teaching English for 40 years when I got sick and had to retire?" In the above, "was teaching" and "used to teach" both create the imperfect tense in English and would translate into the imperfect in Romance languages. – Nick Nov 22 '17 at 4:50
  • When asking it in a question, you could say, "When used you to teach it?" since it is a semi-modal in English; however, it is considered archaic these days and 99.99% of people will ask it with a "did" as if it were a form of the simple past tense. – Nick Nov 22 '17 at 4:56
  • Thank you so much for a nice explanation. Appreciate it. – alex Nov 22 '17 at 6:14

The difference between these phrases is that used to is a modal verb and had is only in simple past.

The first phrase uses used to that is a modal verb:

"Lisa used to have long hair when she was a child"

These means that the action was a routine in the past or happened many times in a time frame, so if you want to say a action that happened in the past but it happened frequently or happened between a time frame, you should use the modal verb used to

The second phrase only uses had so is in simple past:

"Lisa had long hair when she was a child"

These means that the action was in the past but only for once. Timeline

Here I try to explain the difference, in the red hand we have the simple past, which is used to say an action that happend in the past. The blue hands point to two different points of the timeline that is the action happened between these dates.

  • I agree with you regarding most of this, alex; however, for starters, "used to" is a semi-modal; not a modal. Second, in English, "had" can be used in the imperfect with the same meaning as "used to have" depending upon the context. I shall agree with this: it is better to say "used to have" because it lets the person know that it was happening over a period of time. In English, they both can mean the same thing when contextualized. – Nick Nov 22 '17 at 6:25
  • Example: "Oh, you have a beautiful doll there, sweetie. I had (or used to have) the same doll when I was young. I would (or used to) play with her all of the time. She was (or used to be) my favorite doll, too." – Nick Nov 22 '17 at 6:29
  • 2
    Not exactly, Past Simple can refer to the whole of the past, a defined time interval or to a certain point in the past whereas "used to" in the past can refer only to a time interval. – SovereignSun Nov 22 '17 at 6:33
  • 1
    Hahaha Well I guess you have the reason, with the correct context you can say the same meaning with different words, but in other languages (spanish for example) the usage of a (only one) word or phrase without context can change it completely. Thank you for the help to clarify it. :) – alexchvrches Nov 22 '17 at 6:41
  • English is more flexible than Spanish or French or any other Romance language in this respect because it doesn't have a true imperfect tense. These would take the imperfect in other languages whereas English has different forms that construct an imperfect. This is similar to the constructions used to create the future tense since English technically doesn't have a future tense conjugation; it just has a future tense construction. – Nick Nov 22 '17 at 6:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.