Understanding Used To, Would and Get Used To
Used To & Would Past Conversation Questions are available here.
Used to, would and get used to are understandably confusing for English learners. Let’s look at the differences and the details that can help ESL students.
First off, keep in mind that would is used in ways that are not described here - an added complication for learners.
Used To vs Would
Used to and would are helper verbs, which means they are used with other verbs. These terms are only used to talk about the past. They can sometimes be used interchangeably, but there is a difference between them.
Used to and would can both express repeated, habit-like actions in the past. The behavior need not have been a habit in a negative or very frequent sense (although it could be). The feeling conveyed by these expressions is not the recent past, but rather, a past that is quite distant.
I used to go to the beach twice a week.
They used to encourage me all the time.
I used to not eat vegetables.
I used not to eat vegetables.
I used to never eat vegetables.
I never used to eat vegetables.
There is also the clear implication that what you are describing is no longer what is happening. In the next sentence, we understand that Tony no longer smokes half a packet of cigarettes per day:
Tony used to smoke half a pack a day.
Would can be used in the above sentences. However, if you are just starting to speak about the past, used to is the better choice. If it’s clear that you are talking about the past, would is an equally good option.
I would go to the beach twice a week.
They would encourage me all the time.
I wouldn’t eat vegetables.
He would smoke half a pack a day.
When can we use Used To but not Would?
Would is not used for extended situations, but used to can be. Consider these good examples:
I used to be a doctor.
I used to have a BMW.
I used to date him.
These are all situations that, we infer, have changed. The speaker is no longer a doctor, no longer has a BMW, and no longer dates him.
Replacing used to with would creates different and potentially incomplete meanings like these:
I would be a doctor. (we may think the intended full expression is a hypothetical scenario like I would be a doctor if I had studied harder.)
I would date him. (this sounds like he is an acceptable date, if the speaker gets the opportunity).
This chart sums up the difference between these two key expressions:
|Repeated actions in the past||Continuing situations in the past|
Note that used becomes use whenever the tense is shown in the helper verb did. Pronunciation-wise there is little difference between ‘used to’ and ‘use to’.
Did you use to drink?
I didn’t use to care about money.
Practice using our key expressions with these Used To & Would Past Conversation Questions.
To Get/Be Used To (Something)
To get/be used to (something) looks similar to one of our key expressions, so it’s not surprising that students get confused. Here, used to is an adjective. This expression means to be accustomed to, to become familiar with, or even to become accepting of. It frequently appears in the past tense, but other tenses are definitely possible.
Compared with be, get has the added meaning of change. You can use become instead of get though get is common and natural-sounding.
I got used to his way of doing things.
I was used to hearing all about hydroelectric power.
I’m getting used to these shoes.
I’m not used to doing it this way.
I finally get used to a procedure, and then they change it!
Are we going to ever get used to this?
You’ll get used to it.
A complicating factor related to the above expressions is the pronunciation. When we say ‘used to’ it sounds like ‘use to’. Students might be tempted to clearly pronounce the d in used before saying to, and that would sound wrong.
Also, students need to know that English speakers often pronounce the ‘to’ in this expression with the schwa sound (Ə).
They might hear either pronunciation:
I used to drive. (aɪ juzd tu draɪv or aɪ juzd tə draɪv)
I believe it’s worth encouraging students to say full sentences with the schwa so that they sound as natural as possible.