Used To or Be Used To

“Don’t make things too complicated. Try to relax, enjoy every moment, get used to everything.”

Angelique Kerber,  a German tennis player

Consider the sentences:

  • I am used to getting up early.
  • I used to get up early.

They both are perfectly correct, but they mean different things. If “to be used to (doing)” and “used to (do)” are 2 constructions which are not quite clear and pose difficulties, this blog is for you. Read and learn!

USED TO

Positive I used to get up early. He used to have a family. He used to listen to vinyl records.
Negative I didn’t use (used) to get up early. He didn’t use (used) to have a family. He didn’t use (used) to listen to vinyl records.
Questions Did you use (used) to get up early? Did he use (used) to have a family? Did he use (used) to listen to vinyl records?

We use used to + infinitive to talk about regular past actions that don’t happen now:

  • I used to work full-time. (Now I work part-time.)
  • People used to write many letters. (Now they send emails.)

We often use adverbs of frequency (e.g. always, every year, once a month) with used to:

  • I always used to get up at 6.
  • My sister often used to stay up late.
  • We never used to fight.

We also use used to + infinitive to talk about past situations which are no longer true:

  • She used to have long hair. (Now she has short hair.)
  • I used to be a teacher. (Now I am a translator.)

We often use used to, not the past simple tense, when we want to emphasize a difference between the past and the present:

  • I work part-time now but I used to work full-time.

We use the past simple for:

  • single actions in the past: I used to see Sam last week. I saw Sam last week.
  • periods of time: I used to work there for 3 years. I worked there for 3 years.
  • a number of times: We used to play poker three time when we stayed there. We played poker three times when we stayed there.

We can also use would + infinitive to talk about regular past actions (but not situations) that don’t happen now:

  • When we first moved here, people would stop and talk in the street. But, fortunately, that’s all in the past.
  • She would have long hair. She used to have long hair.

When we start descriptions of past actions with used to, we usually continue with would:

  • When he was younger, he used to go on very difficult expeditions and he would take risks…
  • When I worked full-time, I used to come back home at 8 p.m. and I would spend the rest my evenings…

BE USED TO

Don’t confuse used to do with be (get) used to doing:

  • I am used to working like this. (= I often work like this; it isn’t unusual for me.)
  • I used to work like this. (= I worked like this in the past; I don’t anymore.)

If you are used to something, you have done it or experienced it many times before. Note that if you use get before used to, you talk about becoming accustomed to something, and if you use be fore used to, you talk about a state:

  • I’ve been living here for 2 years and I’ve got used to the local culture. (I am used to it now.)
  • It took me a while to get used to working with Jeremy.
  • Have you got used to the new lifestyle? – Yes, I have.
  • Are you used to dealing with foreign customers? – Yes, I am.
  • I’ve got used to the idea of having children.
  • I am used to the new schedule, and you’ll be too.
  • I am used to commuting by train.

Now let’s practice!

Choose the correct words in italics. Sometimes both answers are possible. The answer key is at the bottom of the page. 

  1. When we lived in the country, people in shops would/used to be much friendlier.
  2. When I was a child, we didn’t use/weren’t used to fly – we couldn’t afford it.
  3. Do/did you use to wear a uniform at your last school?
  4. Last week we interviewed/used to interview over 30 candidates.
  5. Did you use to/would you have dark hair when you were a girl?
  6. In the 19th century people worked/used to work longer hours than they do now.
  7. When Matt was in his twenties, he used to/would play rugby every Sunday.
  8. When we went to Nepal, I used to climb/climbed to Everest Base Camp once.
  9. When we were children, we would often visit/often used to visit our grandparents at the weekends.
  10. Did they use to have/would they have electric lightning in the 1800?
pexels-photo-355952.jpeg

Was there electric lightning?

Answer key: 1. used to 2. didn’t use 3. Did 4. interviewed 5. Did you use to 6. worked/used to work 7. used to/would 8. climbed 9. would often visit/often used to visit 10. Did they used to have

Materials used: “My GrammarLab Intermediate” by M.Foley and D.Hall, Cambridge English Dictionary

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