We use used to to talk about something that happened or was true over a period of time in the past.
I used to play basketball.
There used to be a good cafe near here.
He used to practice soccer a lot, and now he’s a professional!
We might talk about a past period because:
- It doesn’t happen or isn’t true in the present
- We don’t know if it happens or is true in the present
- We are comparing past and present time periods
Resources often say that we use used to when we refer to things in the past which are no longer true.
Although this is often the case, there are other times people use used to as well. By looking at these examples too, we get a better sense of what used to really means.
Seeing the big picture
Many resources insist that used to is used for something that no longer happens in the present. And this isn’t always true. For example, in the Collins Dictionary, they say used to is for things ‘not continuing in the present’, but when they define still, they say that a situation that used to exist can still exist.
“If a situation that used to exist still exists, it has continued and exists now.”
To be fair, being consistent is good, but this isn’t a big problem for most students. They practice using used to for things that don’t happen in the present and this is good for most situations. Doing this allows them to become familiar with the used to and be able to use it.
The reason that I chose to write about this example is that it is an explanation that many teachers (myself included) believe (or have believed) as the truth, and I have taught it to my students as fact. Sometimes new information comes up that makes us rethink what we once believed.
When you think about it, something that ‘no longer happens in the present’ is a common use of the past form in general. If I say, “I played basketball when I was younger”, it suggests that I don’t play now in the same way that used to does. We often use the past of have to say we don’t have something now:
“Didn’t you have an umbrella?” – Meaning: you don’t have your umbrella now. Check if you left it in that shop.
The reason why we wouldn’t use used to in this situation is because we’re not referring to a period of time in the past, just a point in time (when I saw you not long ago).
So, by looking at used to more accurately, we can see that its meaning is simple and it is part of a bigger system – and this is the goal of the language learner: understanding how English works, as a system of communication.
This more accurate explanation of used to helps us open our minds and view the language as something flexible used for communication. It encourages us to think for ourselves about what the grammar really means and why English speakers choose to use it.
Video Transcript: How do we really use used to?
Many books tell us that used to means something happened in the past but no longer happens. But is this really true?
How about this sentence:
There used to be a good cafe near here.
Is the cafe there now? Maybe. It depends on the situation.
There used to be a good cafe near here, but it closed down. (So it isn’t there now)
Do you want to get a coffee? There used to be a good cafe near here, I hope it’s still there. Great! It’s still here.
So if it is still there now, why is it natural for us to use used to?
We use used to to talk about something that often happened or was true over a period of time in the past.
Used to is useful when we talk about things that don’t happen anymore. We talk about the time in the past when they did happen.
“I used to play basketball.”
Sometimes we talk about the past because we don’t know about the present, like in the cafe example.
We might simply want to emphasize that it happened in the past.
“When he was young, Jim used to practice soccer a lot. He’s a professional soccer player now.”
(So he probably still practices soccer a lot.)
As you can see, the meaning of used to is that something often happened or was true during a period of time in the past. If it happens now or not depends on the situation. And this is how we really use used to.