Jul 22

IELTS Grammar: Describing the past using 'would'

Eessential grammar for IELTS Speaking

As you probably know, we use WOULD in polite requests (Would you mind closing the window?) and in conditional sentences (If I got stuck in an elevator, I would press all the buttons and scream).

We can also use WOULD in a similar way to USED TO. It describes things which happened regularly or repeatedly in the past, and which do not happen now. It can only describe actions, so you cannot usually use it with verbs like ‘to live’ or ‘to know’.

Interestingly, we usually use WOULD to describe repeated past actions which we have positive feelings about. We never say/write: ‘I would get up really early. I absolutely hated it’ but we might say/write ‘I would get up early every Saturday and go straight outside to help my uncle milk the cows. It was my favourite part of the week.’

This structure can be very useful in IELTS Speaking when you are describing happy things from your childhood or past. It has the advantages of being complex, unusual, and being a good way of avoiding constant repetition of ‘used to’.
Timeline showing repeated actions in the past

  • When I was little, we went to Italy every year and, as soon as we got there, we WOULD head for this fabulous café where they made the most delicious ice-creams I’ve ever had.

  • When my little brother was younger, he WOULD climb the tree in our neighbours’ garden and pick the apples. 

  • When I was at university, I WOULD get up early every single day and go rowing on the river. It was a fantastic way to start the day.

  • In the first job I ever had, there was a colleague who never shared anything. When she went for lunch, we WOULD steal her biscuits. She never realised.

EXAMPLES where we should NOT use WOULD:

INCORRECT: When I was younger, we would live in a tiny house (‘To live’ is a state. You can only use WOULD as a past tense to describe actions)

INCORRECT: Once, when we went to Italy for a week, I would eat ice-cream every afternoon. (We can only use WOULD for actions which happen regularly over a long period of time. Although the person in this sentence might have eaten ice-cream seven times, the action happened within a one-week period)

INCORRECT: When I was at school, I would have History and Geography lessons on a Tuesday afternoon. (There is no positive feeling or emotional content in this sentence. It is a statement of fact. We use WOULD as a past tense to describe things which we have feelings about)

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