Used to Function and Rules

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The English language is full of challenging phrases and expressions. At the same time, these phrases hold a significant place in conversations, helping to communicate ideas and histories accurately.  One of such phrases is ‘used to.’ Understanding its meaning, role, and rules is essential for all English language learners. In this article, you will learn the meaning of ‘used to be,’ understand the rules, place them in the sentence, and differentiate it from past simple and would.

Meaning and role of ‘Used to’

'Used to' is a modal phrase that profoundly describes the past. When we say 'I used to,' we refer to a specific period, action, habit, or state that was common or regular in the past but has since changed, and now things are different. The phrase is always used in the past tense and is typically followed by the base form of a verb.

'Used to' precedes a base form of a verb, creating a construction that targets past routines or conditions. For instance, saying 'I used to play football' not only conveys the act of playing football but also informs the listener that this activity is no longer a part of the speaker's current life.

Comparison with Past Simple tense

'Used to' is a modal phrase particularly used to express actions or states that were habitual or regular in the past but no longer occur in the present. In contrast, Past Simple describes actions or events that happened at a specific time in the past without any implication of their regularity or continuation into the present.

For example, when someone says, 'I used to swim every morning,' it implies that swimming was a regular activity in the past but is not anymore. In contrast, 'I swam yesterday morning' only indicates that the action of swimming happened on the previous day, with no indication of it being a regular past activity.

The choice between 'used to' and Past Simple depends on the context and the speaker's intent to convey a sense of habit or a one-time event. This distinction enriches the English language, allowing speakers to differentiate between regular past habits or states and singular past events, adding depth and precision to their narratives.

Used to or Would

In English, both 'used to' and 'would' are employed to talk about past habits, but they differ subtly in their use and context. 'Used to' refers to both past states and past actions that were habitual but no longer occur. 'Would,' on the other hand, is specifically used for past actions that were repeated over time, but it cannot be used to describe past states. It often implies a sense of nostalgia or reminiscence about past routines. 

For example, 'Every summer, we would go to the beach' conveys a repeated action that occurred over several summers. However, 'would' cannot be used in the context of states, such as 'I would be young,' where 'used to' is appropriate, as in 'I used to be young.'

The choice between 'used to' and 'would' depends on the context and the aspect of the past being described. 'Used to' is more comprehensive and suitable for both actions and states, while 'would' is more limited and appropriate for repeated actions only. For example, 'When I was a child, I used to be shy' (state) and 'I used to climb trees' (habitual action) versus 'As a child, I would spend hours reading' (habitual action only).

 Used ToWouldPast Simple Tense
RoleExpresses habits or states in the past, often implying that the situation has changed.Often used to talk about past habits or repeated actions, not states.Describes completed actions or states in the past.
Place in SentenceGenerally used as a verb phrase in the structure: subject + used to + base verb.Used as a modal verb in the structure: subject + would + base verb.Formed by using the past form of the verb: subject + past verb (regular: -ed ending; irregular: varies).
Examples
  • I used to play basketball. (habit in the past) 
  • There used to be a park here. (past state)
  • When I was a child, I would visit my grandparents every summer. (repeated action) 
  • We would play hide and seek for hours. (habit)
  • I played basketball yesterday. (completed action) 
  • There was a park here ten years ago. (past state)

Common mistakes

One of the most frequent mistakes involves the confusion between ‘used to or use to.’ This confusion typically arises in negative sentences and questions. For instance, in the negative form, the correct phrase is 'didn't use to,' as in 'I didn't use to like coffee.' However, it's often mistakenly written or spoken as 'didn't used to.' Similarly, in questions, the correct form is 'Did you use to play tennis?' not 'Did you used to play tennis?'

Another mistake is thinking that 'used to' can be used for habits or states that continue into the present. In fact, 'used to' is exclusively used for actions or states that were true in the past but no longer apply. For example, 'I used to live in New York' implies that I no longer live there. Using 'used to' to describe ongoing habits or states is incorrect.

Additionally, learners sometimes apply  'used to' to situations where the Past Simple is more appropriate. For instance, 'I used to go to the store yesterday' is incorrect; the correct sentence is 'I went to the store yesterday.' 'Used to' is inappropriate for actions that occurred at a specific time in the past and were not habitual.

2

Get used to vs. used to

You may often hear a structure ‘get used to,’ which sounds very similar but has a different meaning. ‘Get used to’ is an idiomatic expression that refers to the process of becoming accustomed or familiar with a new situation, condition, or environment. Here are some examples:

  • That’s all about our rules. You’ll soon get used to them.
  • I had to get used to waking up early for my new job.

So, ‘used to’ can be applied in sentences when you talk about past habits and states that aren’t true when speaking. ‘Get used to’ can be applied when you talk about something uncomfortable for you, but now you are familiar with this thing or situation.

Conclusion

By mastering the meaning, role, and grammar rules of "used to," you will articulate your thoughts and experiences in English clearly. Whether you are recounting past habits, describing past states, or referring to past changes, "used to" will enable you to communicate with precision and fluency.

Remember that between use to or used to, you should choose the latter; don’t overapply ‘used to’ to the sentences, and don’t use this structure for actions that are true in the present. With practice and familiarity, you will seamlessly incorporate this phrase into your everyday English conversations.

Would vs will in the English languageVerb phrases in EnglishModal Verbs in EnglishVerbs in English

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