On this blog, we like to look at words and phrases in the English language that learners often have difficulty with. Two phrases that can be confused are ‘used to do something’ and ‘be used to something/doing something’. People often use one phrase when they mean the other, or they use the wrong form of the verb that comes after one of these phrases. This is not at all surprising. Although these ‘used to’ phrases have different meanings, they both refer to things that are often done or experienced. If you find ‘used to’ confusing, take five minutes to read this post. It may all become clear!
I used to walk to the office in my old job.
I used to have fair hair when I was a child.
The first sentence describes something that happened repeatedly in the past (I walked every day). The second sentence describes something that was true for a long period in the past (I had fair hair). Note that phrase ‘in the past’. ‘Used to do sth’ is only used to describe the past – never the present. Just to be clear, then, these are the two things that we describe with ‘used to + the infinitive verb form’:
1 things that regularly happened in the past
2 continuous states in the past
Notice that we often use ‘used to’ to describe something that happened or was true in the past, but not now. In other words, we often use this phrase to describe differences between the past and now. The thing to remember is that you need the infinitive form of the verb here. Learners sometimes make the mistake of using the –ing form:
I used to swimming in the sea all the time.
Another thing to remember is that the negative of ‘used to’ is ‘didn’t use to’, without the ‘d’ on the end of ‘use’. (Sometimes people add a ‘d’ here, but in an exam, this might be considered wrong.)
I didn’t use to like olives when I was a child but I now love them.
Note that we can also ask questions about the past, again using ‘use to’ (and not ‘used to’):
Didn’t you use to go there with your parents when you were little?
The other phrase – be used to something/doing something – has a different meaning. If you are used to doing something, you have done it or experienced it many times. It does not upset or surprise you now. (Perhaps it did before.) Remember the verb ‘to be’ before this phrase and the noun or the –ing form of a verb after it.
Yes, it’s hot but I’ve lived here for ten years so I’m used to it now.
It’s hard work but I’m used to working long hours.
Note that this phrase can refer to the past, present or future:
She was quite strange, but I’d worked with her for years so I was used to her.
The new system is a bit tricky but in a week or so I’ll be used to it.
There is one more thing to say about the phrase ‘be used to’. It is often used with the verb ‘get’ instead of ‘be’:
At first I didn’t like getting up so early but I soon got used to it.