Expressing habits past and present

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Many are familiar with the semi-modal ‘used to’ for exressing habits someone used to have in the past, but stopped doing at some point in time.

Classic example: He used to smoke, (but quit some years ago).

However, used to is not the only possible choice for expressing past habits.

Some time ago I did the following little exercise with one of my groups:

Look at the following passage below and underline all phrases that express something the author habitually did in the past.

When I was a kid, our family used to have meals together. Not necessarily breakfast, as family members left the house at different times. But in the evenings, after my grandmother had come back from her job in a hotel in New York City, we would sit down together for dinner. We would gather around a huge table in the dining room next to the kitchen and enjoy whatever meal my grandma had cooked. After dinner I would scoop up some ice-cream for me and my great-uncle; something only the two of us indulged in together.

One of my grandmother’s sons had recently divorced and moved into her house. He used to be a baseball player, but after a shoulder injury, he had to quit. He did continue bowling, however, a family sport almost all of us played. Going down to the bowling alley together used to be one of my favorite pastimes. I would carry my uncle’s bowling bag – I didn’t yet have one of my own – and look forward to a big bag of pop corn I would gobble down while the others fought for strikes (…)

What you find here are several examples of verb phrases using WOULD. All of them could be substituted by a form of USED TO, but especially in written language, we often find WOULD (plus a main verb in basic form) for expressing the meaning of habitual activities.

In a Guardian article about how the pandemic situation led to changed hygiene habits you find several sentences in which past habits are expressed using WOULD.

Two passages from the text:

Before the pandemic, Clifford would shower every day and wear clean clothes. “Lockdown and long weeks working from home revealed the necessity for scrupulous personal hygiene was rather less important in practice than we’d previously considered,” he says. 

For some people, the different routines of working from home have altered the timing of their hygiene habits, as well as the frequency. Pete, a software engineer who, pre-pandemic, would run 10km most days, found his motivation lacking during the first lockdown. “I decided enough was enough,” he says. He changed his morning routine – after a brief shower, he would put on his running kit before starting work. Then he would go for a run during his lunch break, come home for “a proper shower, followed by deodorant and aftershave”. His teeth also got a bonus brush. Another reader was paying more attention to their oral hygiene during the pandemic as they were “terrified at the thought of needing a dentist during lockdown”.

In another exercise, we had the following sentence (from: Friedman, Thomas L.. Hot, Flat, and Crowded 2.0 (S.3). Picador. Kindle-Version)

18. Chen Hsien, an employee of a Chinese plastics factory, expressed his disbelief over the  “sheer amount of crap Americans _________________________.”

  1. bought
  2. have bought
  3. will buy
  4. would buy
  5. buy

This sentence, one of several other ‘classic’ straight forward multiple choice exercises, caused problems. The maker of the test avoided offering number 5 as a choice, as buy would also have been possible. But what is the difference between

a) I can’t believe the sheer amount of crap Americans buy

b) I can’t believe the sheer amount of crap Americans will buy

Like ‘would’ above, ‘will buy’ here expresses that someone is doing/buying something habitually – in the present, not in the past.

What is the difference to sentence a)?

Sentence a) has a different semantic perspective. The simple forms of the English verb (so-called ‘simple present’ and ‘simple past’) mainly express factuality. We express something we believe to be true with these two forms; the second – ‘simple past’ – only adding a different time reference to the basic meaning of factuality.

With the second sentence b), the speaker adds an additional aspect or perspective on the American buyers behavior that a) would not have: that of habituality – maybe even a slight judgmental surprise or criticism, but such an additional interpretation most likely will depend on the context.

The modal auxiliary WILL is one whose various semantics are not easily captured in generalizing words. There is not one general definition of the word or one explanation of its use. WILL can be used in various different contexts expressing various different things.

I will write a separate post on WILL.

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