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How to Teach “Used To” in 6 Easy Steps

November 21, 2013

I used to understand this…

Eventually, every English learner needs to master speaking, reading, and writing about the past. I’ve previously offered advice on comparing the simple past with the past progressive, but what about the short, common past expression used to? I’ve often found that my students make mistakes with this expression, especially in negative statements and questions. So what’s the best way to teach them how to use used to?

1. Form

Used To + Base Verb

Used to is always followed by a base verb. Don’t forget to tell your students that used to follows the normal past verb rules: it becomes use to with the auxiliary verb did in questions and negative statements.

See section 4 below for examples—make sure you give your students lots of examples with did and didn’t so that they’ll remember this change!

2. Use

Used to is a unique expression in English. Its form and function are similar to a modal (i.e., it gives extra information about the verb and is followed by a base verb). Used to shows that an action was performed repeatedly in the past, but is no longer performed in the present. It is commonly used when talking about long periods in the past (e.g., childhood, school years, past job, etc.).

3. Examples

  • I used to eat meat, but I don’t anymore.
  • They used to study English every day in high school.
  • Did you use to play video games when you were a child?
  • Did my sister use to sing when she was little? I forget.
  • I didn’t use to play the piano as a child, but I took lessons later on.
  • My teacher didn’t use to give us any homework. Now we get homework every day!

4. Tricky Points

Don’t forget to point out to your students that used to + base verb is NOT the same as the past participle of the verb use followed by an infinitive verb! This can be confusing for students. Try giving them the following examples:

  • He used to work out every day. (Form: used to + base verb. Meaning: He worked out often in the past but doesn’t anymore.)
  • This machine is used to make student ID cards. (Form: use (present passive) + infinitive verb. Meaning: Making student ID cards is the machine’s function.)

When use indicates the function of something, it is almost always in the passive voice. Tell students that if they see the be verb before used, it is likely indicating function, not a past habit/routine.

And as previously mentioned, make sure you remind students that used to becomes use to when used with the auxiliary verb did. (See the examples above.)

5. Practice

Try our lesson Simple Past - I used to in our Basic Grammar Sentences section. This six‑page lesson has a pair activity, a writing exercise, a speaking activity, and a fun word search that will have your students using used to correctly in no time!

6. Fun Activity

When I teach used to, I often have my students do the following pair activity. Have them draw two columns on a piece of paper. One column has the title “When I was a child…” and the other says “Now…” (I often write it on the board to show them). If you teach children, you could make it "Two years ago…" and "Now…" instead.

Brainstorm topics as a class, such as food, transportation, games, hobbies, family, etc. Try to come up with 10 topics. Next, give them a few examples of your own, such as “When I was a child, I used to ride my bike. Now I drive a car.”

Students can now ask their partners questions about the topics and write down their answers. (E.g., “What did you use to eat when you were a child? What do you like to eat now?”) Make sure your students answer the questions about their childhoods using used to!

Alternatively, you could get your students to write their own answers for homework and discuss them with a partner the next day.

What about be used to and get used to? Students often mistakenly believe that these expressions have the same form and meaning as used to, but there are important differences. Find teaching tips, activities, and a comparison chart on Used To, Get Used To, and Be Used To.

Here’s to using used to correctly!

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Comments (26)

ahmad shadeed(Guest)

very helpful

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Glad to hear it! :)

Justin Ross(Guest)

Hi, Tanya! I like the fun activity comparing the past and the present. It's very doable for beginners. I'm teaching verbs right now. I will try to do your plan with my students. Thanks for sharing.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks for your comment, Justin! I hope your students enjoy it as much as mine do. :)

Tara Benwell(Author)

Great pointers, Tanya! Can't wait for the follow up post.

Do you have any pronunciation tips for 'used to'?

Reply to Comment

Stephanie (Guest)

In addition, the letter 's' has different pronunciations depending on the form used.

I use mint toothpaste. 's' = /z/
I used to prefer cinnamon when I was a child. 's' = /s/

David (Guest)

Tanya!! That was really good! Thank you!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Happy to hear it! Thanks for taking the time to comment, David!

Rodney (Guest)

Thanks, I think it is going to be useful, I'm still in teacher training and I have to apply a 'used to' activity for an eight grade!! I hope I this can work great! thanks!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Best of luck, Rodney! :)

Kim (Guest)

Hi Tanya,
Thank you for the information.
What about a be verb situation?
Why did computers use to be so expensive?
They were difficult to make
Why were computers used to be so expensive?
They were difficult to make.
Thank you for your reply.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Kim,

Very sorry that I missed this comment last year! I just saw it now as I was updating the post. To answer your question, you can use 'be' as the main verb. Your first question is correct:

  • Why did computers use to be so expensive?

You could also say 'Why were computers so expensive?' with almost the same meaning. The question with 'did/use to' just emphasizes that it was like that for a long period of time in the past.

However, your question 'Why were computers used to be so expensive?' is incorrect. We must use 'do/did' as the auxiliary verb for 'used to.' Hope that helps!

Zenasi Hafida(Guest)

thank you for sharing!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

You're welcome, Zenasi!

Teguh (Guest)

Hi Tanya, thanks for your explanation.

I want to ask, can I use 'used to' in the present context with the word 'use to'?

For example:

Before 1999, I used to go to work on foot.

At present, I use to go to work by bus.


Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Teguh,

Good question. No, you can never say 'At present, I use to go to work on foot'.

You could say 'At present, I am used to going to work on foot.'
You could also say 'At present, I am getting used to going to work on foot.'

Note that 'be used to' and 'get used to' have different meanings from 'used to' and from each other. See my post for more clarification:

Hope that helps! :)

Sheila (Guest)

Hi Tanya,
Thanks for your very clear explanations! I've noticed that in most grammar activities for students, the instruction is to drop the 'D' from 'used to' for negative sentences and questions. As you pointed out, the 'D' should be dropped when used with the auxiliary 'did', whereas in questions using a pronoun, the 'D' is retained. For example: 'Where DID you USE TO live?' requires dropping the D, whereas 'Who USED TO live in that house?' requires the D. Do I have that right?

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Sheila,

Yes, that's right, and I agree that's it's clearer for students to explain it this way. Basically, 'used to' follows the same patterns as any past verb. So for Yes/No and Wh questions with an auxiliary like 'did' and a subject noun or pronoun, we need the base verb, but when the Wh word is the subject we just use a past verb with no auxiliary. For example:

  • You made a cake. / You didn't make a cake. / Did you make a cake? / Who made a cake? / Who did you make a cake for?
  • You used to ski. / You didn't use to ski. / Did you use to ski? / Who used to ski? / Who did you use to ski with?

Just be careful with your wording 'in questions using a pronoun' because both 'you' and 'who' are types of pronouns in your examples. I find using the term 'Wh words' helps separate them from the subject and object pronouns in the same sentence. Thanks for your comment!

Kais Abdellatif(Guest)

Hi Tana. Thank you very much for your explanation. As you mentioned above having the verb 'be' before used to in your example. .' This machine is used to make ID cards for students' means the passive voice of the verb use and not a past routine activity.
I want to know if we say: ' this machine used to make ID cards for students ' we can get the form of used to as a routine past action or should we say : ' this machine was used to make ID cards for students'. Which one is correct.
Thank you

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Kais,

Great question! You are correct that your first example is describing the purpose of the machine (what people use the machine for) with a passive verb ('This machine is used to make ID cards for students').

For your second set of examples, both are actually correct, though the meaning is slightly different:

  • This machine used to make ID cards for students. = correct, simple past of 'use to + make,' meaning is that the machine made ID cards in the past but no longer works (the machine is broken or now has another function)

  • This machine was used to make ID cards for students. = correct, past passive of 'use to + make,' meaning describes what people used the machine for (the purpose of the machine) in the past (because we used the past Be verb, the meaning is that the machine is broken or has another function now)

When the subject is a thing, you'll find that 'use to' can often be active (to explain what something did in the past but no longer does) or passive (to explain what people used it for). Hope that helps!

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