Meaning and usage of ‘used to + infinitive’

(How to use the fixed phrase ‘used to …’ in English)

Table of contents – usage of ‘used to + infinitive’

On this page you will find the following:

  1. Usage of ‘used to + infinitive’
  2. Particularities of ‘used to + infinitive’
  3. Further explanations and exercises

When and how is ‘used to + infinitive’ utilised?

The expression used to + infinitive describes states or habits that existed in the past (also compare with the simple past). A specialty of this word combination is that phrases such as ‘in former times’ or ‘in the past’ are not needed to clarify its past tense meaning. In terms of formation, this form is not very complicated: only ‘used’ has to be changed in questions and negations (see below), and the infinitive or basic form always remains unchanged.

Consider the different possibilities of using ‘used to’ and how it may appear in context. In detail:

  • Employing ‘used to …’ in positive sentences (used to + infinitive):
    • “He used to play tennis with me, but now he doesn’t have the time anymore.”
    • “When I was young, I used to go fishing with my dad.”
  • Utilisation of ‘used to …’ in negative sentences (didn’t use to + infinitive); note that the ‘d’ at the end of ‘used’ is omitted in negations:
    • “We didn’t use to go out a lot when we lived in London.”
    • “I didn’t use to do sports, but now I love it.”
    • Information: In some (often formal) cases, ‘used to’ can be negated without ‘didn’t’. If this is the case, either ‘not’ is inserted or ‘never’ precedes the verb:
      • “She used not to like pets, but now she has three little cats and a dog.”
      • “We never used to go camping.”
  • Usage of ‘used to’ in questions (diduse to + infinitive); again, the ‘d’ at the end of the word ‘used’ is dropped:
    • Did she use to live in the centre before she moved in with you?”
    • “Where did you use to work before being a hotel manager?”

Remark:Used to’ can only refer to the past (there is no: “I use to …”) and has no counterpart in the present. As a rule, the best option for current habits is the simple present; however, you can also express them with the adverb ‘usually’, for example:

  • Regular use in the past tense:
    • “I used to go to work by car.”
    • “We used to live in Sydney.”
  • Corresponding options in the present tense:
    • “Nowadays, I usually go by bike.”
    • “We live in Berlin.”
      • Here, the simple present is sufficient.

Particularities of the phrase ‘used to …’

The expression ‘used to + infinitive’ is often confused with ‘to be/get used to’; but the latter has a different meaning:

used to be used to …ing
  • “He used to work hard.”
  • This statement refers to the past. It is no longer valid.
  • “He is used to working hard.”
  • This utterance refers to the present, which means to a current situation.

Further explanations relating to the ‘Fixed phrase ‘used to + infinitive’’

The following explanations relate to the topic ‘Meaning and utilisation of ‘used to + infinitive’’ and may be helpful as well: