This post has been written with ESL / EFL students in mind, intermediate level and above.
The verb ‘to use’ is a key element in several widely used grammatical structures that students sometimes confuse or don’t use properly. In this post we’ll go through them, explain their meaning and, finally, practise a bit.
The verb form used can be one of two things:
- past simple tense of the verb ‘to use’:
I used your computer yesterday because mine didn’t work.
He lost his wallet, so he used his brother’s credit card.
Did you use the tools I gave you?
- past participle of the verb ‘to use’, which can be used independently, or to form passive sentences:
Curry is a spice much used in Indian cuisine.
The company car is in bad shape because it has been used a lot.
DNA analysis is used to solve crimes.
USED TO + INFINITIVE
We use this structure to talk about past habits and routines; things we regularly did in the past, but don’t do any more. There is only this one, past tense form – we can’t use this structure to talk about present or future habits.
I used to smoke. (I’ve quit; I don’t smoke any more.)
She used to work as a waitress. (Now she does something else.)
Mark used to live in London. (He’s moved since.)
In questions, the ‘used’ part acts as in past simple questions, i.e. the -d ending is dropped, and we use the auxiliary verb did / didn’t:
Where did you use to go on summer holidays when you were a child?
Didn’t he use to work as a mechanic?
Your accent sounds very British. Did you use to live in England?
Note that there is no difference in how you pronounce used to and use to, but be careful how you use them in writing: it’s always used to in positive sentences, and did / didn’t … use to in negative sentences and questions.
BE + USED TO + NOUN / PRONOUN / GERUND
This structure is used to say that we are (or were / will be) familiar with something or accustomed to it. The only thing that gets changed in this structure is the verb ‘to be’ which we can use in different tenses; the rest of the structure stays the same.
It may look like the ‘used to’ structure above, but apart from the difference in meaning, there is also a difference in verb pattern: this structure isn’t followed by infinitive, but by a noun, pronoun or gerund (the -ing form of a verb):
I am used to getting up early. (i.e. I’ve been doing it for a long time now, and it’s not a problem any more.)
Frank didn’t even notice his boss’ rude behaviour because he was used to it.
Mary is used to jogging every day, and she feels ready for the marathon.
GET + USED TO + NOUN / PRONOUN / GERUND
This one is very similar to the previous structure. The verb pattern is the same, but the meaning is slightly different: get indicates that one is (or was / will be) in the process of becoming familiar with something initially difficult or challenging. Compare the previous set of examples with these:
After a few weeks you will get used to getting up early. (Now it’s still a problem, but soon it won’t be.)
Frank is getting used to his boss’s behaviour. (He’s still upset by it, but it bothers him less and less as time goes by.)
Mary was just getting used to jogging when she had an injury and had to stop running completely. (She was in the process of developing the habit of jogging when she had an accident.)
Now you can practise these structures a bit more using the following online grammar exercise. If you have any further questions, please post them in the comments section below.