I Used To, But Not Anymore

By bogotapost September 10, 2014

Oliver Pritchard walks us through using the imperfect, past continuous and ‘used to’ tenses in English

Writing stories and descriptions in the past are things that many students find difficult. Today, we’re going to look at how you can improve your past descriptions, avoid common errors that Spanish speakers make, and sound more natural.

Basics: Past Continuous
was/were + present participle

I was crying
She was singing
We were playing

When to use:

  • Describe something that happened a lot in the past

I was crying a lot.

  • Describe an interupted action

They were washing the car when he arrived.

  • Parallel actions

She was playing football while he was cooking dinner.

  • Setting the tone

It was chaos. The children were running around, the dog was chasing the cat, the dinner was burning and the grandmother was crying.

Imperfection with the past continuous
Probably the biggest difference between the two languages is the use of the Spanish imperfect. -aba or -ía is NOT the past continuous. Sometimes it is, but certainly not always. Many constructions that take the imperfect in Spanish use the simple past in English. For example “when I was 10” NOT “when I was being 10.”

So, let’s look at how to use the past continuous. The first thing is simply to avoid translation. Translation is the number one cause of errors for Spanish speakers, particularly in this topic.

In English we use the past continuous to describe things that happened more than once, especially if this was unusual. “I was crying a lot”. Obviously, it is unusual to cry, and even more unusual to cry a lot unless you are a baby. By using the past continuous, you show that this was happening often, but that it was not a general action or a habit. For habits, used to is more normal.

You also use the past continuous with “when” to describe what you were doing at the time another action happened. This use of the past continuous is really close to the Spanish imperfect, as it is used to describe background events and actions. For example “I was playing football with my friends when I broke my leg.” Note also that verbs like break are rarely used in the continuous (see below) as they have a different meaning.

“I used to have a dog.”

“I used to have a dog.”

Certain verbs – known as state verbs – should never take the continuous form. A common error for Spanish speakers is to say, for example, “when I was having a dog” or “at that moment I was loving her.” While both are possible in the Spanish imperfect, neither can be used in English. The reason is that in English, these verbs are simply true or not true. It is like being pregnant – you are pregnant, or you are not pregnant.  See the table for a full list of state verbs.


State verbs
State or stative verbs describe a state of being rather than an action.They can be broadly divided into the following groups:Emotion
like, love, hate, want, please, surprisePossession
have, own, want, belong, needSense
see, hear, smell, seem, weighThought
realise, know, believe, remember, suppose, understand

So, how can you express these things? Simply use context and an alternative tense: “(when) I used to have a dog” or “then, I loved her.”

“When I lived in Tokyo...”

“When I lived in Tokyo…”

Remember also that certain verbs sound unusual in the continuous form because they describe immediate actions that are usually short. For example “…I was arriving.” This is possible, but it has a very different meaning and gives a very different description. In this case, you are either giving a very specific time reference for another event- “I put my finger in the door just as he was shutting it”- or implying that the action was taking more time than normal. “I was dropping the ball slowly” shows that the ball was not falling fast, but taking a long time to slip from someone’s hand.

“...I used to buy canned coffee from vending machines...”

“…I used to buy canned coffee from vending machines…”

Also, actions from a long time ago often take “used to” as we will see below.

Used to + verb
This is a very useful and common past tense in English, although language learners don’t seem to like it. I think that this is often taught badly but it is quite frequently used, and critically, it helps you to sound natural. Because it has no direct translation into Spanish, students don’t often think to use it.

So, if it’s so useful, how can we use it? First, it is a great tense for describing habits in the past, especially ones that you no longer do. It is possible to use “past continuous+when” to express this, but it feels much more elegant and natural with “used to.” For example, “when I lived in Tokyo, I used to buy canned coffee from vending machines and eat fried chicken on a stick. It was great.” Note that again, we use the past simple of “to be.”

“... and eat fried chicken on a stick.”

“… and eat fried chicken on a stick.”

Another useful point about “used to” is that it can be used to imply a change: “I used to play football, but now I don’t.” This allows us to give more information about our present situation, as well as the past events. It also allows us to be more precise in fewer words: “do you play football? I used to” = I played football when I was younger but now I don’t. It is more and more important at higher levels of English to be more elegant in your speech, and tenses like used to make this easier.

An alternative is “(I) would + verb.” Don’t think about the logic of having a past form of will, just substitute this for “used to.” It functions in the same way but is usually used with a time reference: “I would play football all day, every day when I was younger.”