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I feel a little tangled in grammatical nuances and would like you to help me clear some things out. I know it's possible to use either the past simple, "used to" and "would" to talk about past habitual actions. But is the use of the last two of them limited only to personal experiences, or is it also correct to utilize them while talking about, say, historical events?

In other words: do these sentences mean exactly the same thing to you? Do you sense any differences between them?

  1. Jack the Ripper approached/would approach/used to approach his victims slowly and nonchalantly.

  2. The Aztecs fought/would fight/used to fight their enemies with wooden pikes.

  3. When he was a boy he practiced/would practice/used to practice playing piano.

  4. I read/would read/used to read a lot about astronomy even during my childhood.

I know a lot of such cases depend on the context; past simple can mean both a specific action and a series of repeated events, right? Oftentimes it's the words that create the meaning, not grammar, but does it apply to the utterances listed above?

  • In a single sentence, it's best to use "used to". You can use "would" for describing a continual series of actions in the past where the whole series were being repeated again and again. But "used to" is referring to a special action, not series of actions. At least, that's the grammar I've been taught. I got lost in my sentence myself! :) – M.A.R. ಠ_ಠ Feb 15 '15 at 21:28
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    "Used to" implies that it's not the same anymore. "I ate cheese" means that the speaker ate cheese at some point in the past (and could do it again), and "I used to eat cheese" means that in the past, the speaker would sometimes eat cheese, but he or she no longer does. – Zgialor Feb 15 '15 at 22:22
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    @MARamezani I've never seen "used to" used to refer to a "special" action. I agree with Zgialor's comment. Bebop, as for "X-ed" versus "would X": I think the latter is more commonly used to describe a methodology or activity, especially for things that no longer occur, but both are largely interchangeable. – Matthew Read Feb 15 '15 at 23:24
  • I'm well aware of the circumstances under which every of them should be used, it's not the understanding of them that poses a problem - it's the troubling similarities in their meanings. @Matthew - But does that mean that in historical accounts the "would" form would be more common? I reckon I saw the past simple form used more profusely in writing about past events, as in: "The Ripper seized the women by their throats and strangled them until they were unconscious if not dead." or "He typically approached them in public places, feigning injury or disability (...)". – Bebop B. Feb 15 '15 at 23:51
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Hmm. I definitely prefer these:

  1. Jack the Ripper would approach...
  2. The Aztecs fought...
  3. He used to play piano as a boy...
  4. I read a lot about...

  1. This is talking in context of another action already implied to be habitual, such as "When he was on the hunt, Jack would..." 'Would' is used when you place an actor in a scenario and talk about the possibilities of that scenario, what the actor's wills and choices are. (Note: will -> would, using will in the choice or volition sense.)

  2. This is tricky to explain. The problem is that English has tenses that merged together in the modern language, but that are still separate in their logic. I am not so sure 'simple past' is an accurate characterization of this verb. In an earlier tongue, this could be written as "the Aztecs of old did fight their enemies with wooden pikes." but modern sources consider that an intensifier instead of a tense creator. I'm stumped.
    I am okay with 'would fight' in this context, but prefer it as I wrote it above.

  3. "Used to" seems appropriate for two reasons: this seems like a storytelling thing instead of a more formal context, and he is also implied not to practice piano anymore. Used to should not be used in a formal context.

  4. I prefer this simply because the sentence reads best when this isn't treated as a habitual at all. This is entirely equivalent to both "at some point, I read..." and "several times during my childhood, I read..." but the distinction isn't important, just that the event did happen.

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One way to distinguish among these locutions is to understand what kind of question they would answer.

What was Jack-the-Ripper's M.O.?
Jack the Ripper would approach his victims slowly and nonchalantly.

What weapon did the Aztecs use in battle?
The Aztecs fought their enemies with wooden pikes.

Is astronomy a hobby you have recently taken up?
No, I read a lot about astronomy even during my childhood.

But this last one is not quite idiomatic, and I'm not sure what to do with it:
When he was a boy he practiced/would practice/used to practice playing piano.

Probably:

Did he ever play a musical instrument?
He used to play piano.
He used to take piano lessons.
When he was a boy he played piano.
When he was a boy he took piano lessons.

P.S. Is any one of these sentences to be preferred?

The late Glenn Gould hummed audibly while playing Bach.
The late Glenn Gould would hum audibly while playing Bach.
The late Glenn Gould used to hum audibly while playing Bach.

  • But these are not rules set in stone, right? Just your preferable choices? Do you find other options incorrect/unnatural? – Bebop B. Feb 16 '15 at 6:47
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    They are not carved in stone, but I'd say that, in careful writing, a modus operandi is expressed with "would" far more often than with "used to". Also Jack the Ripper is dead, so "J-t-R used to..." has unwanted implications. A simple statement of historical fact is expressed more often with the simple past than with "would", since the latter often implies a process or method, or a recurrent action of some kind; finally, the presence of certain temporal phrases, e.g. "even during", can make "used to" an awkward choice. Small things can tip the balance in favor of one or the other locution. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 16 '15 at 12:59
  • So "used to" is used far less often in such cases, I get it. Now what we have left is the more vague difference between the past simple and "would" form. The two sentences from your post scriptum seem equally good to me - though, personally I'd opt for "would" in this case for some reason. "Used to" seems here quite out of place. The main problem I have with the first two is that I find it often a bit ambiguous whether the speaker implies a single action or a habitual/repeated one, if the past simple is used. – Bebop B. Feb 16 '15 at 15:52
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For some reason with some of the examples when 'would' is used, I get a feeling that the author has some information that lets them write with certainty. I can see someone asking 'how do you know that?' when 'would' is used in some cases while it feels less likely the same question would be asked with the alternatives. Also 'would' feels like the reader is almost being transported to the event being described.

With 'used to' you are giving the audience a clue that something that was frequently done before is no longer being done. So when you say that the Aztecs used to fight enemies with wooden pikes, you shouldn't leave the reader wondering about what weapon they switched to later on. That sentence kind of is setting up the next where you would say 'Unfortunately for them, the high priests order the warriors to switch to pikes made of dried grasses, which didn't help...'

Also the 3rd and 4th example regarding 'used to', would only make sense if the boy in #3 didn't grow up to be a professional pianist, since it's likely he still practices just as much (unless your specific point was that he stopped practicing and his career as a pianist is failing because of that.)

Same goes for #4 , 'I used to read a lot about astronomy even during my childhood. But after I got a degree in astronomy, I no longer bother reading about it at all.' If the last 2 sentences is what you are trying to say, then ok, otherwise you shouldn't be using 'used to'.

Overall 'used to'/would/'simple past' are identical in use, except 'would' can't be used for past 'states' :

When I was a boy, I [would live]/[used to live]/[lived] in Brooklyn. <-- not correct

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Simple past can be used for repeated statements in the past. Read books there you will find a lot of sentences with simple past referring to repeated actions.

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