How not to use ‘used to’, by Akeem Lasisi


The expression, ‘used to’, is a common one. Often, it comes up in our speeches and writing. Unfortunately, many people mishandle it to the extent that they give it meanings that contradict its original sense.

‘Used to’ expresses an action or activity that was a habit or regular in the past, but which the person involved has stopped. The action was common before. It could even have been done always in the past; but for one reason or the other, it no more takes place. So, when you use ‘used to’ in this sense, you are talking about that occurrence that is a thing of the past.

This means that it is very wrong to describe an action that is still constant with the expression, ‘used to’.
Consider the following examples:

My mum said I used to cry a lot when I was a baby.
During the colonial era, Britain used to appoint political leaders for Nigeria.
Sokoto and Jalingo used to be together as a state.

In all of the three examples, the actions or events were common in the past but they do not occur again. Now consider the following wrong handling of ‘used to’:

I used to bathe every morning.
President Buhari used to address the country on Independence Day.
The sun used to rise in the east and set in the west.

These sentences are wrong because the actions still take place. Or you don’t take your bath again?

Used to + ing
But there is another context in which the expression can convey a current or recurrent activity. This is when it is used with a verb in the -ing form. In this instance, the statement indicates a habit that is still relevant till today when used with ‘is’. It means being familiar with or accustomed to the action or process.

Consider these:
She is used to eating rice in the morning. (This means that, habitually, she takes rice as breakfast. She did so in the past. She still does so now and, whether the government closes or opens borders, she is likely to continue doing so in the future.)

President Buhari is used to giving his ministers free hand to operate. (This means that it is the President’s style. He did so during his first tenure, he is still practising it and he is very likely to do so till he leaves office.)

Another point to note, however, is that ‘be used to’ can also be followed with a noun phrase or pronoun:
President Buhari is not like OBJ. He (Buhari) is used to tactical silence.
Mary doesn’t like eating late. She’s not used to it.

Lastly, ‘be used to’ can also indicate a past habit when ‘was’ precedes it. So, if you say, ‘Buhari was used to tactical silence’, it means that that was in the past. He has abandoned the style.

NOTE: Watch this short video on the tautology many of us commit with the expression, ‘some few’, and subscribe to Phenomenal English for more free lessons:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here