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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.)