Lesson #180: Describing Habits and States of Existence with ‘Used to’ and ‘Would’, through Trollope’s ‘The Warden’

When I choose a novel to read, I tend to like books that have social morality or human motivation as some of their themes or topics. Anthony Trollope’s book, The Warden (1855), is one such book. It is the first of his collection of a series of novels he wrote called the ‘Chronicles of Barsetshire’. 

Anthony Trollope was a famous author in his day, although not as widely known in our time. He was also one of the most prolific (publishing widely) authors in Victorian Britain, having written 47 novels, dozens of short stories, and travel books in his lifetime. What is all the more remarkable is that he wrote these books while working full-time at a post office! 📚

You may be wondering – how did he manage to write so much? 

Apparently he would get up very early every morning, because he used to write for several hours before heading off to his post office duties. ⏰

And that brings us to today’s Lesson topic: how to describe habits and states of continuous existence with the common words ‘used to’ and ‘would’. 

Here are 5 points to help you understand what they really mean, how they are different from each other, and how best to use them in English.


We use ‘used to’ and ‘would’ when we are talking about habitual actions in the past, often when we are trying to differentiate or contrast what happened in the past with what is taking place now in the present. So for example:

📘 ‘She had thought also how gently she would whisper to her father all that her lover had said to her about herself … Alas! she could say nothing of this now.’

– Anthony Trollope, The Warden (emphasis mine)


✍️ ‘Would’ only describes what happened regularly in the past. 

✍️ On the other hand, ‘used to’ can be used to describe both what happened or took place regularly, as well as what was a continuous existing situation in the past

So for example, we might say that,

✒️ e.g., ‘As a teenager, I would go for a walk everyday when the weather was fine’ – it was a habit rather than an existing situation (I was not walking non-stop as a teenager!)

but we use only ‘used to’ to describe something that existed continuously in the past:

e.g., ‘There used to [NOT ‘would’] be a house in the field that I would/used to [either is fine here] walk past, but it has since been knocked down.’ [the house had existed there]

Here is another example:

✒️ ‘Margaret would call/used to call her friends on the phone nearly every day after work’, but

✒️ ‘My mother used to live in the U.S.’ [live describes an existing state, not a habit]


Because we use both little phrases ‘used to’ and ‘would’ with another verb, you may be wondering how we conjugate the second verb. It is simple: we use an infinitive for all persons, only excluding the ‘to’ that accompanies the infinitive. Consider this example from the pages of Trollope’s The Warden:

📘 ‘… he used to boast that such was the air of the hospital, as to make it a precinct specially fit for the worship of St Cecilia.’

– Anthony Trollope, The Warden (emphasis mine)  

📘 ‘And then Mary would talk as though they three were joined in some close peculiar bond together …’

– Anthony Trollope, The Warden (emphasis mine)  


Perhaps when you think of ‘would’, the first thing that comes to mind is the conditional tense in English – that is, when some action or result is dependent on a particular action being done first. 

Here are some examples of a ‘conditional tense would’:

📘 “I would give her my soul,” said he, “if it would serve her.”

– Anthony Trollope, The Warden

📘 ‘Had he spoken on any other subject, she would have vanished, but on that she was bound to hear him …’

– Anthony Trollope, The Warden 

It does not describe a habitual action. So be aware that ‘would’ can have two different purposes: 1) a conditional one (the most common purpose), and 2) describing a habitual action in the past. 

When we use either version of ‘would’ and are speaking quickly, we often contract ‘would’ to a single letter, such as ‘I would’ = ‘I’d’, ‘you would’ = ‘you’d’, etc.  


It is easy to mix up ‘used to’ with ‘use of’ or ‘use’ in English. One little letter makes a great deal of difference! Let me explain myself here.

‘Use’ can be either a verb or a noun. As a verb, it means to put into service or action; to consume or take; to act with regard to. The noun simply means the act of employing something, of using or being used for something.

I am sure you know these meanings already, but I reiterate (repeat) them here so as to distinguish more clearly the difference between them and ‘used to’, which, as we have mentioned in point #1, refers to something you were in the habit of doing or something that existed over a period of time in the past. 

Here are a few instances of these different uses of ‘use/used to/use of’ for you to read and see if you understand them fully:

📘 ‘For his present use Mr Harding took a lodging in Barchester, and thither were conveyed such articles as he wanted for daily use:— his music, books, and instruments, his own arm-chair, and Eleanor’s pet sofa; her teapoy and his cellaret, and also the slender but still sufficient contents of his wine-cellar.’

– Anthony Trollope, The Warden (emphasis mine)  (This ‘use’ is a noun, meaning ‘the benefit of [using]’ or ‘the special purpose or end of’) 

📘 “Mr Harding, we say, is not an unhappy man: he keeps his lodgings, but they are of little use to him, except as being the one spot on earth which he calls his own.”

– Anthony Trollope, The Warden (emphasis mine)  (Again, ‘use’ here is a noun having the same meaning as defined above, just with the word order of the little phrase ‘use of’ reversed)

👉 One last word regarding the ‘habitual used to’: when we want to frame it in the negative or ask a question, we drop the last ‘d’ instead. The pattern becomes the following:

✍️ Did?/didn’t(?) + SUBJECT + use to + INFINITIVE (without ‘to’) ✍️

✒️ For example: ‘Didn’t she use to read novels at school?’ or ‘Did you use to tell lies when you were a child and in trouble?’

If by any chance you forget and write or pronounce it as ‘used to’ in a negative sentence or a question like the above examples, don’t worry about it too much – many native English speakers often forget to drop or add the ‘d’ as needed!


I hope after this lesson you will be able to make use of what we have learned, until what we have covered becomes such an established habit with you that you may find yourself saying at some point in the future –

‘In the past I use not to use these words very much, but now I do!’

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)