Don’t feel bad if you mix up use to and used to now and again—it is not an uncommon mistake. Used to is a phrase that can mean “accustomed or habituated to” or refers to something from the past that is no longer true. Use to and used to are also frequently used in English grammar as modal verb phrases.
Use to or used to
To refer to a habitual or ongoing action in the past, the correct phrase is used to.
- used to refers to as action done repeatedly in the past: As a child, I used to swim everyday.
- use to has no special meaning, but it can be the verb use and an infinitive: What do you use to remove stains?
Use followed by an infinitive
Before we get into idiomatic meanings for the phrase used to, it is worth pointing out that both use and used can correctly appear before to when to is part of the infinitive of a second verb. That sounds far more complicated than it is, so let’s go straight to some examples.
What do you use to decorate cakes and cookies?
Buttercream icing was used to frost all of today’s cakes and cookies.
In these kinds of sentences, whether you decide to write use to or used to will depend on whether the present or past tense is needed.
Use to vs. used to as a synonym for accustomed to
When your intention is to say the equivalent of accustomed to or habituated to, always write used to and never use to.
Why do people get confused so often with this phrase and incorrectly write use to? It is probably because of our ear’s influence over how we write. When you say used to aloud, the d in used and the t in to blend to almost become one consonant sound. Often, we spell words incorrectly because in our mind’s ear, that is how they sound. A similar mistake frequently happens with the phrase supposed to.
Get used to it—how to use it correctly
The construction of the example above involves the verb to be + used to in order to show that the speaker is in a state of being accustomed to something. A closely related construction is get + used to, which is an idiomatic phrase meaning “become accustomed to.” When you use get + used to, it means that the process of habituation is still ongoing. It is also incorrect to write use to in this case.
Used to shows a former fact, habit, or action
We also use the phrase used to in the sense of formerly to indicate something that happened in the past but no longer does. While in centuries past there was a corresponding present tense form, use to, we now use this construction only in the past tense.
The grocery store used to be at the corner of Main and Fifth.
Karl used to work out every morning, but he has been too busy to keep up with it.
My father used to take a donkey to school.
The only time you should write use to instead of used to with this meaning of the phrase is when it is paired with did or didn’t. The reason is that did or didn’t will have assumed the obligation of reflecting the past tense.
Did your father use to take his donkey to school?
My father didn’t use to take his donkey to school on Mondays, because it was needed at the farm.
If the negative construction in the above example feels too formal for the setting you are writing in, rewrite the sentence without it.
My father didn’t take his donkey to school on Mondays, because it was needed at the farm.
Now that you have learned about use to and used to, you may want to check out these other commonly confused words.