Use To vs Used To: What's the difference?

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Lately, I’ve noticed some confusion with the way people use the idiomused to in a sentence.  Some write “use to and others write “used to?”  Do you know which one is correct? 

Use to and “used to cause confusion for a couple of good reasons.  First of all, they sound exactly the same when you say them out loud; however, one is correct and the other is often a mistake.  The second reason is because it can be used in the sentence as an adjective phrase or as a verb phrase. 

Before we step into usage quicksand, let’s quickly review idioms.  (You can also check out my previous blog on the subject entitled: What is an idiom?) “An idiom is an informal expression that cannot be understood simply by understanding its parts.  It is a figure of speech that has a separate meaning of its own, which is figurative and not literal.  When two or more words are expressed together to create a unique meaning that is different from the meaning of each of the individual words, an idiom is created.”

In order to understand how to use this idiom correctly when speaking and writing, let’s do a quick vocabulary check. 

Part 1: used to

As an adjective phrase, “used to” means “in the habit of” or “familiar with.”


Farmers are used to working outdoors in all seasons. 

(Farmers often work outdoors in the rain, snow, sleet, heat, and hail and are not bothered by it as much as people who don’t work outdoors.)

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Part 2: used to

As a verb phrase, “used to” or “did use to+ a verb means “did formerly; did in the past but not anymore. ---Usually used with an infinitive to tell about something past. 


Uncle Tim used to have a beard, but he shaved it off. 

(Uncle Tim once had a beard, but he doesn’t have one now.)

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Part 3: use to

The only time that it is correct to use “use towithout the –d at the end is when the base form of the verb is used along with a negative or in a question.  That’s because the form of the verb required is infinitive.

Example: (Note that past tense is shown with the words did and didn’t.)

She didn’t use to ride her bike before noon.

Did Uncle Tim use to have a beard?

The next time you are confused about using “use to” or “used to,” remember to do this quick vocabulary check. You will be glad you did!

How to Correct Usage Mistakes

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As a teenager in the 1980s, I incorporated some ungrammatical words and phrases from pop culture into my day-to-day dialogue.  One of the worst habits I picked up was saying the word “like” to accent almost everything that came out of my mouth.  (Like, I was totally, like, bad about it!)  Eventually, I stopped, but my bad habit left a scar.  I still have a grammar usage problem with the word like!

It turns out that there are certain words in the English language that create special problems in usage.  These words can cause confusion in both speaking and writing, and the word like is on the list!  The only way to combat the problem is to 1) learn more about the word and 2) use it correctly. Completing a word-study exercise with your students is a great way to discuss word usage. Here's an example: 

Like has multiple uses in Standard English, and it can be used formally and informally when speaking and writing.  Formally, it can be used as a noun, a verb, an adjective, a preposition, and a conjunction.  Informally, it can be used as an adverb.

Etymology explains that the formal usage of like as a conjunction began in the mid-14th century, but many grammarians regard this usage as an error.  Also, since the mid-19th century, grammarians have been engaged in a long and complicated dispute over the use of the word like as a preposition or not.  Many prefer to use as or as if instead of like.  

Here’s a simple way to keep the information straight:  The word like, meaning “similar to,” is a preposition, not a subordinate conjunction.  Use like to introduce prepositional phrases.  Use the subordinate conjunctions as or as if to introduce subordinate clauses.  Examples:

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Informally, the word like can be used as an adverb when speaking, but it’s rare to see it written that way.  Authors will use it on occasion for emphasis or to capture colloquialism.  (So, that means I wasn’t totally wrong back in the 1980s!  Right?) 


Remember, a good command of the English language requires mastering the rules and applying them correctly when speaking and writing. I encourage you to make word-study a part of your language arts time. This activity will help you understand the word meanings, how to spell them, and in what situation to use them.


Bonus Activity:

From your word-study activity, create a list of common English usage problems and study it!  You will speak and write with more competence and confidence once your master the lists. We have provided a few example lists for you below, but you can find more resources located in your Shurley English book!

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1 Comment /Source

Jamie Geneva

Jamie Geneva is the Senior National Consultant at Shurley Instructional Materials and is a seasoned subject matter expert in the realm of English Language Arts.  Her career with the company began during the days of the Shurley Method binder, which was pre-1st Edition, and has spanned across three decades.  Over the years, her various roles have included teacher, presenter, state representative, consultant, manager, and most recently, a Shurley English Digital Assistant.  You might not recognize her face, but her voice could certainly sound familar.  That’s because she’s recorded Jingles, Q&A Flow Sentences, and other Shurley English content for many, many years. 

Jamie and her husband, Garret, live in the foothills of eastern Oklahoma. She loves spending quality time with her family, traveling, reading, cooking, and staying connected on social media.

Ms. Geneva received her B.S. degree in Elementary Education and her M.Ed in Public School Administration from Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, OK. 

You and I or You and Me: When do I use what?!?

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Yup…we have some troublesome rules to follow in grammar sometimes, and one of the most challenging obstacles in our spoken and written language is that our ear is often at war with the rules of Standard English. Our ears seem to be stuck on hearing and saying “you and I” together at every verbal occasion.

Did you know that most English speakers really don’t care whether “you” or “I” are subject pronouns? Most consider themselves darn lucky if they can remember that these two tiny words are actually pronouns! But, pronouns such as “you” and “I” fit well together and are collocations. That means they are often found together in our language—so they sound right to us most of the time. Now here’s an issue: the pronouns “you” and “me” are found together just about as often. You have heard in real estate terms that location, location, location matters. Well, location matters when it comes to these pronoun phrases, too.

Here’s how I keep them straight:

If I want to use the “you and I” phrase or a combo like Bob and I, I only use it to start a sentence. It will work for you over 90% of the time in your spoken sentences.

When my spoken sentences lead me to either the preposition “with” or “for”, I know that I will be using the object form of the phrase, which is “you and me,” after them. And the phrase will be located closer to the end of the sentence, not at the beginning.


You and I will attend the play together. 

(I only start sentences with this phrase.)


Will you reserve seats for you and me?

(Since I am not starting the sentence with “you and I”, I KNOW I have to use the other phrase “you and me.”)

Comment /Source

David Lutz

David, a former classroom teacher, administrator, and self-proclaimed grammar nut, considers the oddities of English vocabulary and grammar his playthings! He received his degrees in elementary education, teaching, and curriculum design from CMU in Fayette, MO, and the University of St. Mary, Leavenworth, KS, respectively. His career has been a colorful collage of experiences in education, ranging from Kindergarten to Adult education and parenting classes.


He and his wife, Marjorie, have been blessed with 30 years of marriage, three grown sons, a cherished daughter-in-law, and the smartest, cutest grandson on the planet! He’s worked for Shurley Instructional Materials, Inc., for over 11 years and loves to help students and their teachers learn to love language and language learning as much as he does.