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Is it correct to say:

I worked at a software company and I would sell different programs.

To me, would does not sound appropriate here for past habits.

Is selling considered a state like work or live?

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    Would you be likely to say ...and it was my habit to sell different programs? What's wrong with plain ...and I sold different programs? – FumbleFingers Feb 24 '16 at 15:37
  • I agree with @FumbleFingers that there's nothing wrong with using plain old "sold." To avoid any possible ambiguity (did you do the selling at the same company, or is the selling just another item for your CV that you did elsewhere?), you could even consider replacing "and" with "where": "I worked at a software company where I sold different programs" (if that's where you actually did the selling). – Papa Poule Feb 24 '16 at 15:55
  • It's a factual situation, so there's no need for a modal verb like "would". Preterite "sold" or "used to sell" is fine", though it would be more natural to say I worked for a software company where I sold/used to sell different programs. – BillJ Feb 24 '16 at 16:28
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    Or: I worked at a software company selling different programs. – rogermue Feb 24 '16 at 16:32
  • @FumbleFingers But there is a role for would used in this sense, isn't there? They were good days at university: on a Friday night we would go into town, where we would find lots of interesting company; and we would sleep it off on a Saturday. Some would go to church on Sunday, others would catch up with their work'. It is a perfectly idiomatic sense, if a trifle difficult to explain to a non-native. – WS2 Feb 24 '16 at 23:28
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Would doesn't sound completely right here, because usually sentences with would (meaning a habit) imply a trigger or a condition. For example

Every time my alarm rang, I would put it on snooze. (alarm = trigger)

Whenever my mom was in the room, I would pretend to be doing homework. (mom was in the room = trigger)

So I don't think

*I worked at a software company and I would sell different programs.

works.

Used to strongly implies a habit that is no longer going on. But then you would probably use it in the first clause:

I used to work at a software company and sell different programs.

But not

*I worked at a software company and used to sell different programs.

The latter is technically correct, but implies that working at a software company and having sold programs have nothing to do with each other.

The most natural way to convey what you're trying to convey is the simplest:

I worked at a software company and sold different programs.

  • But the form using would is perfectly idiomatic, and in regular use. – WS2 Feb 24 '16 at 23:30
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I thought it might have to do wuth the fact that selling programs was an expected part of the job, a normal state of affairs. She argued that it was a repeated action in the past. It simply did not sound right to me as a native speaker and I wished to explain why.

IMO your thinking was correct as to a normal state of affairs. As a past form of will, would evokes a sense of elected (voluntary) action, as opposed to simply fulfilling the requirements of the job. Consider the difference in the following sentence:

"At lunch, Jane would sit with her friends, but in class, she sat (aka had to sit, was seated, etc.) next to her nemesis."

Here, the inclusion of would in the first clause says that Jane frequently chose to sit with her friends, whereas its exclusion in the second clause takes Jane's wishes out of the picture. Seats were assigned, so she had no choice.

Used to, on the other hand, is not identical to would, in that it clearly closes the possibility that Jane continue to sit with her friends:

"At lunch, Jane used to sit with her friends" relegates this behavior to the past, whether it be that Jane, these friendships, or the possibility of having lunch together no longer exist.

Put another way, "I used to smoke" says that I no longer do, whereas the recollection that "I would drink and smoke too much" not only leaves open the possibility that I drink and smoke now but also carries a tinge of self-recrimination, in that I chose to do these things for better or worse.

As for states, such as "I used to love that" or "We used to be friends" would is logically excluded in the past, precisely because a state cannot be an act of one's will. A state simply is (or was).

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"Would" is fine, from a grammar point of view, but sounds a little odd: a little archaic perhaps. As @FumbleFingers says, it would be better to simply write "..and I sold different programs".

I don't understand quite what you're asking about "selling" vs "work or live" and what the relevance is to this question.

  • A student wrote the sentence in a cover letter and asked why would was not the best choice. She was trying to use a variety of structures in her writing. I thought it might have to do wuth the fact that selling programs was an expected part of the job, a normal state of affairs. She argued that it was a repeated action in the past. It simply did not sound right to me as a native speaker and I wished to explain why. – user162104 Feb 24 '16 at 17:26
  • @user162104 perhaps too little and too late but if the student wanted to express a habitual/repeated action in the past then s/he could have wrote: "I used to work at a software company selling different programs." – Mari-Lou A Mar 28 '16 at 21:39
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To refer to past habits which you no longer practise, you can use "used to" with state and action verbs (no restrictions) whereas "would" can only be used with action verbs.

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