Use To or Used To: Which Is Correct?

 

If you’ve ever had a conversation with a native English speaker, you’ve probably heard some variation of use to or used to. So, which did you actually hear? Did the person say used to or use to? More importantly, which one is correct? In today’s guide, we will examine the grammar rules for both, but first, we will explain why these common terms are so often confused. So, let’s get started!

Why do use to and used to get confused?

As you can see, use to and used to look very similar in writing. There’s only a difference of one letter. The similarities are even worse when speaking English. Why? Because English speakers (particularly Americans) often pronounce both terms the same — or nearly the same.

Use to sounds exactly as it looks, like “you(z) to.” As a result, use to is pretty easy to use once you know how and when it applies. However, used to makes things more complicated.

Based on English pronunciation rules, used to should be pronounced as two distinct words. It should sound something like “you(st) to.” As you can see, there’s a notable difference in the way use and used are pronounced. The former has more of a “z” sound, while the latter has an “st” sound. Unfortunately, these are just how each term should be pronounced, not how they’re actually pronounced in everyday conversation.

If you’ve ever spoken with a native English speaker from the United States, you probably know that Americans have a tendency to speak quickly, allowing separate words to sound like they are mashed together. This doesn’t always present a problem, but in the case of use to or used to, it’s a pretty big issue.

Why? Because if you don’t separate the sounds of the words in used to, it sounds very similar to use to. As a result, many non-native speakers struggle to distinguish between the two in conversation. Now that we’ve looked at the issue of phonetics, let’s look at each term’s definition(s) to understand how they should be used.

Definitions: Use to vs. Used to

Despite looking and sounding very similar, use to and used to can mean very different things. First, let’s look at the definition of use to:

Verb phrase – Use to – To take, hold, or establish something for a specific purpose.

Basically, use to is just one way to express the action of using something. However, there are some instances where use to can take the place of used to as an adjective phrase. We will talk about that a little later on.

Alternatively, used to can function in three distinct ways. Here are all the possible definitions of used to:

  1. Verb phrase – Used to – To take, hold, or establish something for a specific purpose (in the past tense).
  2. Verb phrase – Used to – To show that a situation or event existed or happened in the past, but does not exist or happen now.
  3. Adjective phrase – Used to – Accustomed to; to express familiarity with something. 

Needless to say, used to is a more complex term. It can function in multiple ways and can even be limited to certain tenses. As an adjective phrase, used to can be put in just about any tense. However, as a verb phrase, used to is limited to tenses in the past.

So, now that you know what both of these terms mean, let’s see when you should say use to or used to

As previously mentioned, use to is the simpler of the two terms. There are only so many ways you can use it. In any case, here are a few common examples:

  • A hammer is what I use to build houses.
  • We use the oven to bake bread.
  • Which currency do they use to buy things?

Now let’s take a closer look at how to put used to in a sentence:

Used To Examples

Since there are several different ways used to can function in a sentence, let’s first look at the simplest form of the phrase:

Used to as a verb phrase in the past tense (to take, hold, or establish…

  • I used my hands to mold pottery back then.
  • The table was used to host dinner parties.
  • Which weapons were used to fight wars in Rome?

When functioning as a verb phrase, used to works much like use to — just in the past tense. 

Used to as a verb phrase (something existed or happened in the past…)

  • I used to go fishing on the weekends, but I don’t have time for it anymore. 
  • They used to attend the annual parade before it was shutdown.
  • He used to ski, but he can’t now that he’s had knee surgery.

As you can see, when referring to an event or activity in the past that no longer occurs, used to is always followed by the infinitive form of a verb.

Used to as an adjective phrase (accustomed to…)

  • I’m used to it.
  • He was not used to the hot weather.
  • They are used to living abroad.

As an adjective phrase, used to is almost always preceded by a “to be” verb. However, in less formal conversation, the “to be” verb can also be replaced by some form of “get,” like in the following examples:

  • She got used to her new school.
  • Get used to it.
  • I have gotten used to working as a freelancer.

Whether you use “to be” or “get,” used to can either be followed by a verb + ing or by a noun/noun phrase.

The Exception to the Rule

There’s an important exception to the rules and examples outlined above. In most cases, used to is what you should say or write when you want to talk about an event, habit, or activity in the past that no longer happens. However, there are some instances when you have to replace used to with use to, even when you’re talking about events in the past. 

Did you use to or used to?

More specifically, you will need to replace used to with use to when you form statements or questions with “did” or “didn’t.” For example:

  • Did you use to go swimming when you were young?
  • He didn’t use to like ice cream, but now he does.
  • Didn’t she use to have blonde hair?
  • We did use to have a small home, but we recently bought a larger one.

So, why is this the case? Because in English, you only need to express the past tense one time per statement. Here are a few examples that express this more clearly:

  • INCORRECT: He did not explained the problem.
  • CORRECT: He did not explain the problem.
  • INCORRECT: I did exercised yesterday.
  • CORRECT: I did exercise yesterday.

The same rules apply with use to or used to. Since use to is the infinitive form of used to, it must be put after “did” or “didn’t,” because they already establish the past tense. 

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed this exploration of use to vs. used to! Figuring out when to say use to or used to can get tricky. It’s even worse when you’re trying to figure out which one someone else is trying to say! Fortunately, if you focus on the pronunciation and context, it becomes much easier to distinguish the two terms.

As always, for all things English conversation, grammar, or job-related, visit Magoosh Speaking today!

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones

Matthew Jones is a freelance writer with a B.A. in Film and Philosophy from the University of Georgia. It was during his time in school that he published his first written work. After serving as a casting director in the Atlanta film industry for two years, Matthew acquired TEFL certification and began teaching English abroad. In 2017, Matthew started writing for dozens of different brands across various industries. During this time, Matthew also built an online following through his film blog. If you’d like to learn more about Matthew, you can connect with him on Twitter, LinkedIn, or his personal website!
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