I'm currently translating a book from my mother tongue, Portuguese, to English.

When translating certain sentences about the past, which describe recurrence, I repeatedly resort to would in situations in which I believe I could also use the simple past. For example:

When they saw her coming, they would always stop and whisper cruelties.

Is the use of would there grammatically correct? And does it describe the recurrence of action that I intend? Is it the same in meaning as using the simple past? as in:

When they saw her coming, they always stopped and whispered cruelties.

I am aware that would, as opposed to used to, requires a time frame to be used in the past. But is that time reference necessary for every sentence, in the context of storytelling, when the story is already taking place and being written in the past? For example, could I start the next sentence in that story with would? as in:

She would pretend she couldn’t hear them and would move on with her day, but deep down she was very hurt.

  • 1
    I like your use of would. My take: She would pretend she couldn’t hear them and just move on with her day, but deep down she was very hurt. Apr 6 at 22:21
  • May I presume that the Portuguese you're translating from uses the "imperfect" (pretérito imperfeito, and so like viam/paravam/sussurravam) for both clauses to signal that this was a repeating habitual pattern, not the "preterite" (pretérito perfeito, and so like viram/pararam/sussurraram) to mean this happened just once and was completed and done already, not ongoing?
    – tchrist
    Apr 6 at 23:56
  • Another thought would be to use the "used to" construction for continual actions in the past. "When they saw her coming, they used to stop and whisper cruelties."
    – Robusto
    Apr 7 at 1:03
  • Hi Augusto, welcome to EL&U. When you noted you've asked a lot of questions, you highlighted a major reason for your question to be closed. In fact, all 3 questions in the paragraph starting "Finally, is the switching ..." are less about a general matter of language or usage and much more about seeking an assessment of your own writing style, which is definitely off-topic here. I recommend you edit your post to delete that entire paragraph and the final one, to avoid closure. For further guidance, see How to Ask and take our brief but informative EL&U Tour. :-) Apr 7 at 6:55
  • To everyone that answered my question, thank you very much; all comments were helpful. I was also happy to get a sense of positivity and good will from this community.
    – Augusto
    Apr 8 at 0:42

1 Answer 1


The simple past is for one-time occurrences, so this sounds slightly unnatural:

When they saw her coming, they would always stop and whisper cruelties.

It would be better to use "whenever" instead of "when", because it makes the sentence sound more like "any time they saw her coming, ...". Using would is the more "correct" way for "they would always stop and whisper cruelties" and works exactly as you intend.

Using would in the very next sentence is also acceptable (and probably preferable), and the following clause "she was very hurt" might also be given some sort of "recurring" meaning. For example: "she was always very hurt".

  • 1
    "When I lived by the docks, I often ate clams for breakfast."
    – tchrist
    Apr 8 at 3:23
  • "Live" is a verb which denotes more than a one-time occurrence. Apr 8 at 3:43
  • 1
    'Whenever they saw her coming ...' shows that the simple past is used for iterative (repeated) as well as semelfactive (one-off) actions/events. Here, 'When they saw her coming' leads one up the garden path of expecting a one-off event, so is better avoided. // tchrist's 'When I lived by the docks ...' shows that durative states may also be shown using the simple past. Apr 8 at 15:18

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