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ESL forum > Grammar and Linguistics > USED TO    


United Kingdom

Dear Members,
On the Forum recently, �Mish.cz � raised the topic "used to" and several Members gave very informative answers.
I was unable to take part then, because of urgent family commitments.
In class, I teach that "Used to" ALWAYS refers to the PAST.  It describes an event that is past: an event that does NOT occur NOW.
"When I was young, I USED TO have black hair", (and then I say in a loud whisper), "but NOT NOW!"
Here is a text describing "used to" which I have finally succeeded in copying.  It may help some Members who do not have good access to Grammar Books.



�A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language�, (2010)
Professors Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, Svartvick, and Crystal
Page 140



3.44   Used to denotes a habit or a state that existed in the past --- (cf 4.15 �It can thus be rather difficult, in practice, to distinguish the different meanings of the past tense. But one useful distinguishing mark is the fact that the habitual and state meanings can be paraphrased by means of used to�)  --- and is therefore semantically not so much a modal auxiliary as an auxiliary of tense and aspect. In formal terms, however, it fits the marginal modal category.


It always takes the to-infinitive and only occurs in the past tense:


She used to attend regularly. [�was in the habit of attending ...�]

I used to be interested in bird-watching. [�I was formerly ...�]


It is typically pronounced /ˈjuːstuː/ [youss two] or /ˈjuːstʊː/ [youss to] before vowels or before an ellipsis, and /ˈjuːstəː/ [youss t�] before consonants.  [My phonetic spelling.]


Used to occurs both as an operator and with do-support. In the latter case the spellings use to and used to both occur, reflecting speakers� uncertainty of the status of this verb: an uncertainty, that is, as to whether it is to be treated as an invariable form, like a modal auxiliary, or as a form with an infinitive, like a full verb. The pronunciation of the verb does not allow discrimination between these possibilities. In the negative, the operator construction, which avoids this dilemma, is preferred by many in BrE:


He usen �t to smoke.  < BrE>

He used not to smoke.  < BrE>

He didn �t use to smoke.  < BrE> and AmE>

He didn �t used to smoke.  < BrE> and AmE>


The construction did ... use to is preferred to other constructions in both

AmE and BrE. The spelling did ...used to, however, is often regarded as

nonstandard. The interrogative operator construction used (he) to is rare

even in BrE. Tag questions also normally have do-support; compare:


Did he use to smoke?  He used to smoke, didn �t he?



[a] Used to + infinitive should be distinguished from used to + noun phrase or -ing participle clause:


She is used to life in the country.

She is used to living in the country.

In this latter construction, although it has the same pronunciation as the marginal modal, used to is in fact a participial adjective followed by the preposition to [�accustomed to ...�] (cf 16.69 Note[a] --- In general, choice of preposition remains the same after morphologically related verbs, adjectives, and nouns: different from, differ from, difference from. But this correspondence is not always to be relied on: contrast full of with filled with; proud of with pride in.)

[b] A perfective form of used to, had used to, is occasionally attested.

[c] There is a tendency for speakers to avoid the problem of negating used to by employing the negative adverb never:  I never used to watch television.

(BrE = British English;  AmE = American English; cf = a reference to a different section of this book)

I hope that this helps.

22 Nov 2011      

Olindalima ( F )

Dear Les

Thank you so much for such a clear explanation; it surely is a hard topic and I was not happy with all the previous answers. Thanks for your time.

22 Nov 2011     


Dear Les,

Thanks so much for such a clear & useful explanation!!! Hug

Take care,


22 Nov 2011     


He usen �t to smoke.  < BrE>

He used not to smoke.  < BrE>

He didn �t use to smoke.  < BrE> and AmE>

He didn �t used to smoke.  < BrE> and AmE>

All of these sound clumsy to me! Surely, �he used to not smoke �? But there must be an easier way to say the same thing without using �used to �!

27 Nov 2011