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(For those who are not familiar with what "used to" in English means:)

Used to is a unique expression in English. Its form and function are similar to a modal (i.e., it gives extra information about the verb and is followed by a base verb). Used to shows that an action was performed repeatedly in the past, but is no longer performed in the present. It is commonly used when talking about long periods in the past (e.g., childhood, school years, past job, etc.)

Examples

I used to eat meat, but I don’t anymore. They used to study English every day in high school.

(from http://blog.esllibrary.com/2013/11/21/how-to-teach-used-to-in-6-easy-steps/)

I looked up "used to" here: http://www.wordreference.com/enfr/used%20to , and one entry seems to say that you must use "Avant" plus the imparfait form of a verb (and also, it seems that you must use "maintenant" in your sentence, too):

He used to ride his bike, but now he drives. I didn't use to like this song, but it's growing on me!
Avant, il prenait son vélo ; maintenant, il conduit. Avant, je n'aimais pas cette chanson, mais maintentant, je commence à l'apprécier.

But I'm not sure how to find out on the Web whether this is the only way to translate "used to". Is this the only way? (And how could I try to find out on my own without asking here on stackexchange?)

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You don't have to add "avant " every time, if you just use the "imparfait" tense, it will be enough in most situations. If needed, you can add an adverb to make your statement clearer, but it is not mandatory, the verb alone in the the imparfait will make sense and is certainly not a mistake.

You can also use the phrase "avoir l'habitude de" if you are talking about a habit: He used to ride the bike : il avait l'habitude de prendre le vélo.

BUT you would not say "il avait l'habitude d'aimer cette chanson": this is not a repeated habit but a permanent state.

  • To be clear, if I only say "Il prenait son vélo", this can be translated as "He would ride his bike"? And that this sentence does not imply that he no longer does ride his bike? Similarly, does "Il avait l'habitude de prendre le vélo" not imply that he no longer rides his bike? – silph Oct 20 '17 at 12:43
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    You can translate it as "he would ride his bike" or "he used to ride his bike" (or even "he as riding his bike"), it depends on the context and what you want to convey. The "imparfait" tense does not give a precise indication whether the action or situation extends from the past to the present or not. Again, it is the context that will indicate that. (to be continued) – Greg Oct 20 '17 at 14:16
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    (cont.): Ex: compare: "il prenait son vélo": rather vague, maybe it still applies to the present vs. "quand il allait à l'école, il prenait déjà son vélo": "déjà" indicates clearly that it still applies to the present vs. "auparavant, il prenait son vélo": "auparavant" clearly indicates it is no longer the case in the present. – Greg Oct 20 '17 at 14:17
  • Would is conditional - it is formed from the futur + imparfait, so Il prendrait son vélo. – Oscar Bravo Oct 20 '17 at 14:19
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    Not always: "would" + verb can also be used to express a past habit. learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/fr/quick-grammar/…. As in the web site: "every Saturday, I would ride my bike" => "tous les samedis, je prenais mon vélo" or "tous les samedis, j'avais l'habitude de prendre mon vélo". NOT "tous les samedis, je prendrais mon vélo" – Greg Oct 20 '17 at 14:22
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The idea of "... used to ..., but..." can be expressed clearly with the phrase "à l’époque / au debut" followed by "mais aujourd'hui":

e.g.: Ça me semblait trop éreintant pour mes pauvres petites jambes, à l’époque / au debut. Mais aujourd'hui, je m’y suis fait.

Another example:

Nous y nagions autrefois. {= We used to swim there.}

Just as in the 1st example, Imparfait is the correct tense to go for. And again, the addition of an adverb such as "autrefois" helps to make it clearer that whatever used to be the case back then is no longer so.

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The famous phrase "Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure" (M. Proust) is usually translated in English as "I used to go to bed early".

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An overly formal way could be

Il fût un temps où ...

Again, this is certainly not what you would use in a normal conversation but in a specific context (formal, sarcastic, ...) it could be a good fit.

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"Il fût un temps où .." is indeed a very elegant way of expression the idea of "used to". It's slightly formal, but it can be heard in polite and educated cercles of French speakers. It also exemplifies the idiosyncratic usage of the adverb "où" (where) instead of the more logical "quand" (when). Another less formal way to express the idea of "used to" is by using the adverb "a une époque":

A une époque, je fréquentais un cercle d'amis qui ... ( [A while ago] I used to hang out with a group of people who ...)

  • Using the adverb in relation to time (when) and not space (where) is not an idiosyncrasy but simply etymological. The Latin ubi already had both meanings. – jlliagre Oct 25 '17 at 21:08

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