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would/used to
PostPosted: Wed Jul 11, 2007 8:36 pm Reply with quote
Bridget
 
Joined: 17 May 2007
Posts: 77


Which would you say is more common when talking about past habit, "would" or "used to"?
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PostPosted: Fri Jul 13, 2007 4:46 pm Reply with quote
thegooseking
 
Joined: 10 Sep 2006
Posts: 64
Location: Aberdeen, Scotland


'Used to' is an exmple of the imperfect tense, sometimes also called the past-progressive tense. This tense (as the name 'past-progressive' implies) is used when an action was 'in progress' (usually when some other action happened) - for example, in "I was eating dinner when the doorbell rang", "I was eating dinner" is the past-progressive tense, and "the doorbell rang" is past-perfect tense.

As you say, this can also apply to habitual actions in the past. "I used to eat dinner at 7pm" is past progressive because we're talking about the continuum of "eating dinner at 7pm".

Robert Binnick argues otherwise:-

Quote:
The progressive is used when a situation is viewed with regard to its internal temporal constituency and without regard to any temporal bounds, either initial or terminal. Hence it represents an event or process in its course, with no implication as to its completion. The habitual is similar, with the difference that instead of a single event, it concerns a series of recurring events, or of bounded states.


He goes on to argue that 'used to' is thereby not a marker of the progressive, where he had begun by saying that 'used to' wasn't a marker of past habituality. He argues that 'would' is more appropriate for habituality.

Binnick is correct that past habituality has an implied terminal bound. One might say that it also has an implied initial bound (since someone can not very well start a habit of doing something before they're born). However, the issue he's raising here is whether or not it's appropriate to use the past-progressive for past habituality, which proves neither that 'used to' is inappropriate for past-progressive, nor that it's inappropriate for past habituality.

The core of this argument appears to be that the past-progressive refers to a single state (which, indeed, may not yet be finished - "I was eating dinner when the phone rang" implies that the phone has ceased ringing, but does not imply that I have finished eating dinner), whereas the habitual refers to a recurrent event - I was eating dinner at 7pm, then I finished eating dinner, then at 7pm the next day I started eating dinner again, then I finished again, and so on.

My problem with this is that "eating dinner at 7pm" is a state, not a recurrent event. In the present tense we say "I eat dinner at 7pm" even if the time on the clock is not 7pm. We might say "I [usually/normally/habitually] eat dinner at 7pm." We might even say "I recurrently eat dinner at 7pm" though that might attract some strange looks. But what we are really saying is "I am in the state of eating dinner at 7pm."

As a side note, Binnick goes on to say:-
Quote:
Erik Jorgensen shows that even today this verb [used to] is not limited to the past tense in British usage, at least, where a pluperfect, had used to, is quite acceptable.


Hmm. I must have missed the Grammarians' Convention where the pluperfect was deemed not to be a past tense Confused

Regardless of which is more correct, I suppose I'd better answer the actual question, though Wink My point of view on it is that it's context-dependent. 'Used to' sounds, to me, like an expression of a fact about the past, whereas 'would' sounds more like a narrative way of saying the same thing.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 16, 2007 8:55 am Reply with quote
Bridget
 
Joined: 17 May 2007
Posts: 77


Quote:
'Used to' is an exmple of the imperfect tense, sometimes also called the past-progressive tense. This tense (as the name 'past-progressive' implies) is used when an action was 'in progress' (usually when some other action happened) - for example, in "I was eating dinner when the doorbell rang", "I was eating dinner" is the past-progressive tense, and "the doorbell rang" is past-perfect tense.


I think you'll find that "used to" is the past simple.

Quote:
As you say, this can also apply to habitual actions in the past. "I used to eat dinner at 7pm" is past progressive because we're talking about the continuum of "eating dinner at 7pm".


Is "always ate" past progressive? No.

Quote:
'Used to' sounds, to me, like an expression of a fact about the past, whereas 'would' sounds more like a narrative way of saying the same thing.


Thanks.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 16, 2007 9:44 am Reply with quote
Bridget
 
Joined: 17 May 2007
Posts: 77


Quote:
The progressive is used when a situation is viewed with regard to its internal temporal constituency and without regard to any temporal bounds, either initial or terminal. Hence it represents an event or process in its course, with no implication as to its completion. The habitual is similar, with the difference that instead of a single event, it concerns a series of recurring events, or of bounded states.


I agree with Binnick.
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PostPosted: Mon Jul 16, 2007 4:51 pm Reply with quote
thegooseking
 
Joined: 10 Sep 2006
Posts: 64
Location: Aberdeen, Scotland


Yes, you're quite right. I got confused: 'used to' is past simple. It has a semantically similar counterpart in the past progressive, but it's syntactically quite different (and is generally used to indicate irritation): "He was always eating dinner at 7pm" is past progressive (since it's an extension on 'he was eating...'). It means the same thing as "He used to eat dinner at 7pm" but carries a negative emotion.

My schooling really didn't cover English grammar too well, although I studied French grammar quite extensively at university - I think my confusion came from trying to apply French grammar rules to English. The more I look into it, the more I'm discovering that's a Bad Idea.
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would/used to
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