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Common Error: Confusing "use," "used to," and "(to be) used to"

Hello, and welcome to Mistake Monday! As I mentioned in my previous post about Sitzman ABC’s new publishing schedule, on Mondays I’ll be focusing on errors and difficult parts of English. Today we’ll look at an error that causes problems for many of my advanced students. The problem is that people often confuse the words “use,” “used to,” and “(to be) used to.” Still, with a bit of practice, it’s not so hard. Let’s look:

Common Error: Confusing “use,” “used to” and “(to be) used to”
DON’T say this: Every year my family gets together for Christmas. We always used to eat tamales and cake.
When I was younger I am used to exercising every day.
WHY? -First of all, “use” can be a verb or a noun. When it’s a verb, the “s” is pronounced like a “z,” and when it’s a noun the “s” is pronounced like an “s.” (Click here to hear the pronunciation of both forms.)

-The verb use is normally a synonym of “utilize,” but “utilize” isn’t very common. Both words are usually combined with an object that does a specific job:
Jenny used a hammer and a nail to hang the picture frame on the wall. 

-The phrase used to normally indicates common actions completely in the past (they are not happening now). This phrase is followed by an infinitive verb:
Jenny used to be a good artist before she broke her hand. She used to paint wonderful portraits, but now she can’t do that anymore.

-If you add the verb “to be” in any form before used to, it indicates common actions in the present. These phrases are followed by a gerund (-ing) verb:
Jenny is used to working according to a strict schedule. Every day she wakes up at 5 am, exercises, makes breakfast, and works three hours… all before Ryan gets out of bed! Ryan is used to waking up around 9 am!

-The phrase “(to be) used to” can normally be substituted with the word “usually.”

INSTEAD, SAY THIS: -“My family gets together every year for Christmas. We are used to eating tamales and cake.”
-“My family usually gets together every year for Christmas. We usually eat tamales and cake.”
-“When I was younger I used to exercise every day.”
(finished common action in the past)
-“Nowadays I am used to exercising every day.”
(common action in the present)

What are some things you are used to doing?
What are some things you used to do?

If you have questions or comments related to this common error or the blog in general, please leave a comment or contact me. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!

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  1. AnnaLisa
    On March 2, 2012 at 2:27 am Reply

    That’s a tough one to tackle. Nice!

    A similar mix-up I see frequently in my editing work is a forgotten -d in “used to.”

    Ex: There use[d] to be far fewer options for making this kind of proposal.

    It happens a lot with “supposed to” also:

    We were suppose[d] to renew the license in January but missed our deadline.

    Yep, even the native speakers/writers don’t get it right. Tricky, tricky!

  2. Sitzman
    On March 2, 2012 at 3:07 am Reply

    Hey AnnaLisa!

    Thanks for the comment. You’re also right about the forgotten “d” in “used to” for native speakers. In fact, I had seen it written incorrectly so many times that I used to think it was correct!

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