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What's the difference between 'used to' and 'past continuous'?

Updated: Jun 9, 2022

If we look at the time lines for both, they are the same.

Both events:

  • happened in the past

  • happened over time / frequently

  • do not happen now

When do we use 'used to' and when do we use the 'past continuous'?


Used to


The events in 'used to' can be:

  • continuous (live, drink, work as a...)

  • frequent (visit, stay, go to...)


The events which are 'continuous' can be expressed using either 'used to' or 'past continuous'.


The events which are 'frequent' can be expressed using 'used to'.


Past continuous


The events in the 'past continuous' can be:

  • long-term

  • short-term

The events which are 'long-term' can be expressed using either 'used to' or 'past continuous'.


The events which are 'short-term' can be expressed using 'past continuous'.


Conclusion


If the event is long-term and continuous you can use either grammar.


If the event is long-term and frequent you must use 'used to'.


If the event is short-term and continuous you must use the 'past continuous'.


If the event is short-term and frequent you can not use either.


Why?


Let's take 'drinking coffee' and some time examples.


Example 1 - 10 years


It is long-term because 10 years is a long time. It is also a continuous event because you probably drink coffee every day.


Long-term + continuous = either

I was drinking coffee for 10 years.
For 10 years I used to drink coffee.

Example 2 - 1 day


It is short-term - you've only drank coffee for 1 day. Or, you are referring to that 1 day. It is, however, continuous. I imagine the coffee was in the morning.


Short-term + continuous = past continuous

I was drinking coffee this morning.

You can not say 'used to' because 'used to' is for long-term events. Doing something for one day and stopping does not qualify for 'used to'.


Now let's take 'travelling to Italy' and frequency examples.


Example 1 - 8 times


This is a frequent event and would likely happen over a few years. When it stops you can say:

I was travelling to Italy.
I used to travel to Italy.

Long-term + frequent = either


Example 2 - Once (1 time)


This is not a frequent event but it is continuous. The action happens over time. It would happen in the short-term (if it was a holiday).

I was travelling to Italy.

Short-term + continuous = past continuous


You can't say 'I used to' because you only did it once.


Last example: you see your friend twice (2 times) in one day


Because there are two events, it is not continuous. It is a frequent event. It is short-term and not so you can not say 'used to'.

Short-term + frequent = none


Conclusion


If the event is:

  • continuous and long-term = used to or past continuous

  • frequent and long-term = used to or past continuous

  • continuous and short-term = past continuous


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