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This question evolved from a thread I created here yesterday (Past simple vs used to vs would). But as some of my previous doubts were resolved, another arose, and for the sake of brevity, and because I hoped this might draw in some new people, I decided it'd be best to write a separate post.

I'm having a bit of trouble telling the difference between using the past simple tense and "would" form in sentences that describe past repeated/habitual actions. The main troubling issue for me is the fact that it's sometimes pretty vague whether the speaker implies single or repeated action if they use solely the past tense. Does it always depend on the context of the whole statement?

Is there a situation when one of these forms is preferred to another? Are there even any rules regarding their use, or are they mostly interchangable?

For example, this quotation from The Clockwork Orange incorporates both forms in separate, consecutive utterances:

The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence.

Still, a short note about Ted Bundy's Modus Operandi seems to limit its structure solely to "would" forms.

Sometimes, Bundy would use a fake cast to play on a potential victim's sympathy. He would ask them for assistance of some kind, such as helping him put something in his car or asking for directions.

On the other hand though, the Wikipedia article about this murderer again utilizes both forms:

He would employ various ruses designed to lure his victim to the vicinity of his vehicle where he had pre-positioned a weapon, usually a crowbar. In many cases he wore a plaster cast on one leg or a sling on one arm, and sometimes hobbled on crutches, then requested assistance in carrying something to his vehicle.

To top it all, the two following sentences sound to my ear equally good no matter which form I choose and I really can't tell if one's better than another.

  1. The Aztecs used/would use shells and jewels to create dyes.
  2. He only spoke of it/would only speak of it when he was under a lot of pressure.

I find the entire issue really twisted and tangled, and I really hope someone can provide an in-depth explanation.

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    Nope, they have different connotations but I wouldn't know how to explain them really... Have a look at the BBC Learners website, they have many clear explanations. I think it is not really a matter of understanding the rules here though, as advanced English is more about acquiring the language and "feeling" the most appropriate way of saying something. I can tell you this because I used to struggle a lot with past structures, but only after reading/listening to a lot of "real" English (magazines, TV...) I have learnt how and when I should use which form. It'll come naturally :) – Generalbrus Feb 16 '15 at 21:25
  • Let's have a try with your first example, tell me if it's clear. we were drinking refers to the (one) specific situation that is being narrated, hence past contin. whenever you/we did so (drink that thing), it would affect you/us. would implies that an action repeats in the past. the industry Korova sold describes a state in the past. Again, would is used with actions (how can a state repeat anyway? It is static... Lol) . Used to either with actions or states which lasted over time but are over when you're speaking. The Korova were still selling their milk... – Generalbrus Feb 16 '15 at 22:36
  • You see, the problem is that I think I've already aquired enough experience to call myself fluent. I've no problems in understanding and speaking English - I do it all by heart. It's the grammar I want to master. What happens in this sentences is clear to me, I'd like to know WHY it happens and what the differences are. – Bebop B. Feb 16 '15 at 23:19
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    One could say that a person is not fluent until they have internally mastered the grammar and are able to rattle off such sentence/verb variations easily, knowing what the differences are without having to ask such questions or search through textbooks. Perhaps @Generalbrus meant something similar. – user6951 Feb 17 '15 at 2:14
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The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence.

There are actually two different uses going on here. I think the "would" in "This would sharpen you up" is used to transform the statement into a conditional or hypothetical. For example, "That painting would look nice over the fireplace." In this case the implied condition under which "sharpening up" will occur is the drinking the milk-plus.

In the Bundy examples, "would" is preferred because they are generalized statements about his tactics rather than a recital of his crimes. The same generalization is accomplished without the use of "would" by starting a sentence with "in many cases," although the meaning of the sentence would not significantly change had the author chosen to include the word "would".

The last two examples are perfectly valid constructions either way, but you might prefer one over the other depending on context. The meanings are only very subtly different.

The Aztecs used shells and jewels to create dyes.

The above sentence simply states a historical fact about what the Aztecs did. It works well in multiple contexts.

Example A: "I walked through the exhibit. In one diorama, the Aztecs sacrificed a human being. In another, the Aztecs used shells and jewels to create dyes."

Example B1: "Archaeological evidence suggests that the Aztecs used shells and jewels to create dyes for application to clothing, ceramics, and architecture."

Example B2: "Archaeological evidence suggests that the Aztecs would use shells and jewels to create dyes for application to clothing, ceramics, and architecture."

Note that in Example A, "would use" would not be appropriate. However, in Example B, "used" and "would use" are interchangeable without losing the essential meaning.

The Aztecs would use shells and jewels to create dyes.

The above sentence states the same historical fact, but generalizes it as a habitual aspect in past time. As an example, it might be used when describing a scene or trying build a sense of atmosphere. The "would" might also be used for emphasis or contrast.

Example C: "The Aztecs would gladly use shells and jewels to create dyes, but they would never use turmeric."

Example D: "In the fourteenth century, Aztecs would use shells and jewels to create dyes, toiling for untold hours to achieve what is now accomplished by simply boiling powdered cochineal insects. How fortunate we are to live in such an enlightened age."

Again, in the Example D above, you could substitute "used" for "would use" without greatly affecting the meaning. However, "would use" is favored by the author to call attention to the abnormality.


Edit for more examples:

Remember that "would" in this usage describes habitual, or typical behavior.

I'm going to drop the "only" from your final example, because the modifier makes the two statements roughly equivalent. There is more contrast without it.

He spoke of it when he was under a lot of pressure

This statement means he spoke of it at least one time, and he was under pressure at the time that he spoke of it.

It can be considered a discrete event, solidly in the past.

He would speak of it when he was under a lot of pressure

This statement means that whenever he was under pressure, he spoke of it. It suggests that this occurred more than once. The central meaning conveyed is not the past event(s), but the past behavior: activity that was typical, or which could be generalized. This is why we call it "habitual."

The behavior is typical, such that if you traveled back to the timeframe being discussed, the occurrence "would" happen again (conditional/future tense) if the correct conditions were supplied.

Here are a few more examples that may shed some light on the different scenarios:

Simple Past for Discrete event(s):

Last month, I stopped at a gas station for a bite to eat after work.

Seven times last month, I stopped at a gas station for a bite to eat after work.

Simple Past with a frequency for Habitual Behavior:

Last month I frequently stopped at a gas station for a bite to eat after work.

Would for Habitual Behavior:

Before getting married I would stop at a gas station for a bite to eat after work.

Would for Contrasting Habitual Behavior:

In previous years I would stop at a gas station for a bite to eat. Now I wait until I get home.

Would for Habitual Past Tense Conditional:

I would stop at a gas station for a bite to eat if it wasn't too cold outside.

And for the sake of completeness...

Would for Present Tense Conditional:

I would stop at a gas station for a bite to eat if it weren't so cold outside.

Would for Discrete Past Tense Conditional:

I would have stopped at a gas station for a bite to eat if it hadn't been so cold outside.

  • You stated at one point that the "would use shells..." structure emphasised the habitual nature of this action. Couldn't the same be implied by the simple past? Also, I'd really like to see your take at the "spoke/would speak" utterance, as so far you did a splendid job answering my question. – Bebop B. Feb 16 '15 at 23:47
  • The simple past does not always imply habitual activity. Consider "The Aztecs used native limestone to build the temple at Tenochtitlan" vs "The Aztecs would use native limestone to build pyramids and ball courts." The construction of the temple occurred only once, so the habitual "would use" would not be appropriate. Another way of thinking of it: simple past states that something happened at least once, at a definite point in time. "Would" suggests that if you traveled back in time, you'd be able to observe the described activity; it happened repeatedly, under repeatable conditions. – Thriggle Feb 17 '15 at 4:02
  • Thank you! I suppose my last question boils down to: How does the simple past in all of the sentences above, that were not affixed with any preceding time expressions, make a distinction between a repeated action/habit and a one-time action? – Bebop B. Feb 17 '15 at 14:52
  • Without a frequency or time expression, the simple past does not make such a distinction. For this reason, using "would" can be helpful for adding clarity to a sentence describing habitual behavior. – Thriggle Feb 17 '15 at 15:12
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In this statement

He spoke of it when he was drunk.

we don't know if he was often drunk. He might have been. Maybe it was just that one time. Or now and then.

In this statement

He would speak of it when he was drunk.

we know that he was drunk at least from time to time. More than once. Enough to qualify as a "recurrence".

P.S. But all we have to do, to change the first sentence into a recurrent scenario, is to change one little word:

He spoke of it whenever he was drunk.

The tense did not change. You must attend to the other time-aspect-words in the sentence (e.g. "only ... when").

P.P.S. The simple past can be used to express a recurrent or habitual situation, or a modus operandi/modus vivendi scenario; however, it cannot do so unambiguously, not unless corroborating time-phrases appear in the statement itself, or a corroborating context has been established in the conversation.

In antiquity, they made pain-killers from willow bark.

They spent winters in Florida and summers in Maine.

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    Please see the P.P.S. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 17 '15 at 14:42
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    Shooting from the hip, I'd say they're probably even-steven in casual conversation, with "would + infinitive" being the more common in writing when describing how things were done in a past time, or to express habitual actions or recurrent events: "The circuit judges would travel, often on horseback, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction to hear cases." – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 17 '15 at 22:12
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    Your "pioneers" example is an interesting one. Some of the suggestions seemed a bit odd for me (e.g. "What would pioneers eat"), and Googling these phrases only seems to vouch for my opinion - they were often changed to the simple past questions "What did pioneers eat?" and "What did pioneers wear?". Don't you agree it sounds somewhat more idiomatical? But anyway I get your point. We could exchange examples and instances back and forth without any particular conclusion. Both forms are in use and we shouldn't, well - I shouldn't - try to limit the language by imposing some strict set of rules. – Bebop B. Feb 18 '15 at 19:24
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    Both forms are idiomatic. The simple past can be used in those pioneer examples because the word "pioneers" establishes the context. "What did astronauts eat?" does not work. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Feb 19 '15 at 0:07
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    Oh, I get it now. But if I asked "What did astronauts eat back in the 60's?" it'd be fine, right? – Bebop B. Feb 19 '15 at 0:46
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This is just to add some commentary regarding the ambiguity of the simple past. And also some strategies that a person might use to try to resolve this ambiguity.

Yesterday I started reading a new book. (This is not an example sentence; I'm telling you something true about my life, something that brought this question to my mind.) Anyway, I opened the book and read the first paragraph (which is one sentence), and I have no Idea whether the simple past is being used to talk about a single activity in the past or about a habitual activity. Let me quote this opening sentence from Men at Arms, the first novel in the trilogy Sword of Honour by Evelyn Waugh.

When Guy Crouchback's grandparents, Gervase and Hermione, came to Italy on their honeymoon, French troops manned the defenses of Rome, the Sovereign Pontiff drove out in an open carriage and Cardinals took their exercise side-saddle on the Pincian Hill.

Now, I am not sure how great an opening sentence to a novel that is. An opening sentence is supposed to grab you and make you want to keep reading, or so say many. However, the point is that when I read that opening sentence, my mind was trying to interpret what the author, or rather the text, was saying.

For one who is fairly new to Evelyn Waugh's style and also who is ignorant of all but the most cursory description of what the book is about, I am all but "flying blind" here, with no instruments to guide me.

Anyway, as I read the sentence, I frowned. Because I immediately recognized that the simple past here could be referring to a one time action (all the verbs) or those verbs in the independent clause could be talking about three customary or habitual activities that just happened to be going on when 'the grandparents came to Italy'.

It is very easy to read the sentence either way.

Now the strategies we use to solve this conundrum include our knowledge of how novels usually begin. Many novels, as I hinted, begin with action. So, taking this into account points toward the single event interpretation. Supporting evidence for this is that the arrival of a honeymooning couple often calls for certain individuals to perform certain activities.

On the other hand, novels can open with description, in order to set up a background against which events unfold. In addition, the singularity of events being described point a customary activity, because the singularity suggests that they occur repeatedly at a certain place only.

One last clue that is ultimately inconclusive in helping solve our mystery is to notice that the use of the zero-article before French troops and Cardinals serves as an indefinite rather than as a definite reference to these two groups. One could argue that such an indefinite reference is used for descriptions of habitual activities, but, alas, this is not always the case. Again, we cannot lay down ironclad rules for these things. Which is a good thing, because this openness does not restrain the speaker or writer in his creativity. It also allows for a reader or listener to potentially take wonder in how different texts, speakers or authors can utilize the language as a means of unique and even genius creative expression.

Thus the point of posting this real life example from a native speaker who is a skilled and educated reader is to show you that struggling with this issue is not unique to the language learner. It was also meant to show that we use our intuition to try to intuit the text's meaning. We make a possible case for each meaning, and perhaps most importantly we rely on context to provide clues to the intended meaning. And we do this no matter which text is before us, whether a novel or the screaming rampage of a neighbor.

So now what does one do?

The only answer is to keep reading. The hope is that reading further will lend more clues as to which sense the simple past is being used in. Further reading could provide clues lifted from the writer's style itself (this is how the writer normally describes a single activity or a customary activity) or from further description of the plot. It remains to be seen if the French troops, the Supreme Pontiff and the Cardinals were actually performing a (single) activity or just having their normal or customary behavior described. Certainly a simple would before the last three verbs would solve the issue. But why would an author choose not to do this? I doubt it is to disconcert his reader. I think it has to do with style and how the sentences read with the 'bare' simple past. That is a question you can ponder.

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