“Used to” versus “usually”

Today’s quick grammar point is about the expression “used to” and some related mistakes.

Spanish speakers often confuse “use to do” with “usually do” or “usually does“. They kind of create a “present form” made from “used to”.

However, this is grammatically incorrect. Let’s see why.

When you want to describe routine (things that you do on a regular basis) you should say it with “usually“, not “use to“.

There is an expression which sounds very similar: “used to” (but is used for a different purpose). This “used to” doesn’t work for expressing routine, that is things that you do in your current life. It works to talk about things in the past.

Let me give you an example for a mistake which I often hear from students:

I use to have breakfast at 8 o’clock”.* (incorrect)

What students actually want to say here is that they usually have breakfast at 8 o’clock. Saying this with “use to” is not correct.

  • usually refers to the present routine, that is things that you usually do as a routine (every day or every week or a couple of times a week etc.)
  • used to refers to the past and only the past. This is the point. “Used to” describes things that were a routine or a habit in the past, but in the present they are not anymore.

Example 1:


PAST: When I was a child I remember my city was quite different. We used to shop in small grocery stores instead of hypermarkets. There didn’t use to be hypermarkets where I grew up, only supermarkets or little grocery stores.

We used to shop in small grocery stores means that it was true in the past, but not today.

Note that the negative form of used to is didn’t use to (no “-d” at the end)

PRESENT: We usually buy food in hypermarkets, and much less in small grocery stores.

Example 2:

PAST: We used to have longer phone calls with friends and family, and we used to send them letters and holiday postcards from our travels.

“We used have longer phone calls” means that it was true in the past, but today we pend less time talking on the phone. And we don’t send letters and holiday postcards anymore either.

Here too, note that the negative form of “used to” is “didn’t use to”.

PRESENT: Today we usually send text messages or we just video chat with them, or upload our holiday snapshots to social media where we usually share them instantly.

In summary: “used to” is a very useful expression which describes the past, but only the past. “Usually” is an adverb to indicate routine or habit, typically things that we do in life as a routine.

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