Wednesday, March 6, 2013

USED TO vs BE USED TO - part 1

If you've lived in New York City for awhile, I'm sure you'RE now USED TO
TAKING the subway and NAVIGATING the major transit hubs like this one in
Times Square. However, when you first arrived, you probably USED TO GET
lost or USED TO GET on the wrong train now and then until you figured it out.

USED TO & BE USED TO are easily confused because they look so much alike. However, their meanings and their structures are completely different from each other. Fortunately, it's not that difficult to distinguish these two phrases, and once you've read this lesson, I'm sure it'll be a PIECE OF CAKE. :-)

(A PIECE OF CAKE - very easy)

First, let's MASTER their structures. One of them is formed with USED TO + a verb in the simple form [USED TO go; USED TO live; USED TO swim], while the other is formed with the verb to BE + USED TO + a noun or a gerund (verb+ing) [AM USED TO my schedule; IS USED TO waking up early; ARE USED TO eating dinner late].

(MASTER - become an expert; know something very well)

The first one, USED TO + verb, talks about the past and only the past. In fact, it talks about something in the past that is no longer true in the present.

1. He USED TO live in Chicago. (He doesn't anymore. He now lives elsewhere.)
2. She USED TO have long hair. (She doesn't anymore. Now, her hair is short.)

The other phrase, BE USED TO + noun/gerund, means to be accustomed to something or someone. This means that you have done it so many times that now you don't have any problems doing it. If you're talking about a person, it means you've had plenty of contact with this person that you feel comfortable interacting or working with him or her. It also often means that it was once difficult or you once didn't like it, but now it's easy and perhaps a bit more pleasant.

Because we are accustomed to something or someone, we have to follow this phrase with a noun or a gerund.

1. I AM USED TO the noise in the city.
2. She IS USED TO MEETING new people at her job.
3. Doctors and nurses ARE USED TO seeing blood and being around sick people.

Another thing to remember is while the first phrase (USED TO + verb) only talks about the past, the second one (BE USED TO + noun/gerund) can be used in any tense. To use it in other tenses, just change the tense of the verb to BE.

1. He WAS USED TO getting up early when he lived in New York.
2. Pam hates living in the city. She doesn't think she WILL ever BE USED TO the noise. 
3. She'S NOT USED TO working 12-hour shifts at her new job yet, but she will before long. 

1. What did you USE TO do or have that you don't anymore? 
[Ex: I USED TO have a dog, and I USED TO walk him every morning, but he died. :-( ]
2. What ARE you USED TO doing now that was once difficult or unpleasant? 
[Ex: I'M now USED TO EATING salad. I didn't use to like it. :-P]

Feel free to share your sentences here, on our Facebook page, or @NYLangCenter on Twitter. We hope to hear from you.

- Joe Yu, ESL instructor


  1. I also have seen many students write: I use to which can sound like used to.

  2. It's definitely a common mistake, Barbara. Students need to remember that USED TO is either a past-tense verb or a past-participle adjective (in the case of BE USED TO) and so is never "use to" unless there's an auxiliary verb, as in negative sentences and questions, which incidentally is what we'll cover in part 2. Stay tuned, everyone!