Language tip of the week: used toPosted by Kati Sule on January 05, 2012
In this weekly microblog, we bring to English language learners more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary. These tips are based on areas of English (e.g. spelling, grammar, collocation, synonyms, etc) which learners often find difficult.
This week’s language tip helps with used to.
▪ I am used to doing something
▪ I used to do something
If you are used to doing something, it is familiar to you because you have often done it before. Use the –ing form of the verb in this pattern, not the infinitive:
✗ Looking through the newspapers every day, we are
used to readterrifying reports about crimes.
✓ Looking through the newspapers every day, we are used to reading terrifying reports about crimes.
You can also say that you get used to doing something:
Children soon get used to spending much of their free time watching TV.
If you say that you used to do something, you are talking about an activity or habit in the past which has now finished.
I used to play squash reasonably well.
This means that the speaker no longer plays squash well.
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Once upon a time, in my first blundering attempts to teach English as a foreign language my support, my scaffolding, my guide, my talisman, my solace was a coursebook called ‘Kernel Lessons Intermediate’, by Robert O’Neill et al (Longman 1971). Each of the 25 units included – no, includes (I’ve still got a copy!) – an episode of a gripping tale entitled ‘The man who escaped’, and the first episode begins:
“Edward Coke used to be an army officer, but he is in prison now.”
From the officers’ club to the clink – what clearer illustration could there be of a discrepancy between past and present reality?*
Through using that book and, subsequently, other coursebooks and grammar reference books, I got used to the notion that ‘used to + infinitive’ meant “it was true in the past, but it isn’t now”. It was only much later that I realised that this isn’t always the case. I can say, for instance, “I used to love the Beatles’ music when I was growing up and I still do, half a century later”, or “It’s ages since my mother gave up smoking, and she still misses it as much as she used to.”
It’s certainly true that ‘used to + infinitive’ is very often used to refer to lapsed states and habits, but this isn’t inherent in the grammar; it’s rather because people typically talk about past states and habits in order to contrast them with present ones.
So if you’re talking about your childhood memories, you can say “I used to clean my teeth twice a day” without worrying that listeners will assume that you don’t do so now! (You do, after all, don’t you?)
(*The story ends happily – well, for Coke, at least – with retribution, redemption and the third conditional in unit 25.)