The grammar problem
Today’s quick grammar point is about the expression “used to” and some related mistakes.
There’s a mistake Spanish speakers often make related to the grammar form “used to do something“. What they do is they create a “present form” version of “used to do“, converting it into “use to do“.
They do this to describe routine and habitual activities in the present. However, this is grammatically incorrect. Listen to this podcast snippet to find out why and then read the explanation below:
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 a very similar looking grammar form (a modal verb): “used to“. The function of this modal verb is different.
This “used to” does not work for expressing present routine, that is things that you do in your current life.
It works to talk about routine and habit in the past.
Example of a mistake
Let me give you an example of a mistake which I often hear from students:
“I use to have breakfast at 8 o’clock”.* (incorrect)
What learners 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 present routine, that is things that you normally 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. That 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.
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.
PRESENT: We usually buy food in hypermarkets, and much less in small 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)
In the past we didn’t use to buy food in hypermarkets.
There didn’t use to be hypermarkets where I grew up, only supermarkets or little grocery stores.
PAST: We used to get together with friends and family regularly. We also used to send them holiday postcards when travelling.
PRESENT: Today we often send them text messages or we just video chat with them. When we travel we usually upload our holiday snapshots on social media where we can share them instantly.
“We used to get together” means that in the past we regularly met our friends and family, but today we don’t. This can mean various things:
- we don’t see them regularly
- we don’t see them at all
- today we “meet” with them in a different way (not in person like in the past)
Similarly, if we say we used to send them holiday postcards, it means that we don’t send holiday postcards anymore.
Maybe we don’t send anything, or we send them other things (for example photos we take with our smart phones and upload them on social media).
Here too, note how the negative form of “used to” is “didn’t use to”.
In the past we didn’t use to send them text messages or video chat with them. We didn’t use to have social media to upload snapshots.
As you can see, “used to” is a very practical expression to talk about routine and habitual actions in the past and, at the same time, indicate that in the present they are not true anymore. It’s like a 2-in-1 product! By using one grammar form you are saying two things at the same time.
“Usually” is a word with a similar function. It’s an adverb to indicate routine or habit, typically things that we regularly do in our present life.
I usually have breakfast around 8. (present routine)
But, you can also say”usually” for past tense actions.
They usually cooked lunch at home on Sundays, but sometimes they ate out.
There is a related grammar form: “be used to something“. This is another potential confusing grammar point. We use this grammar form in a somewhat different way. We’ll discuss that in another post later.