I wanted to understand the correct use of "used to". For example:

I used to play cricket over the weekends.

Here, I am talking about the past, not the present.

Can I use "used to" in present tense as well?

Please advise.

  • @FumbleFingers: No, that's the other used to idiom, the one that means 'be accustomed to', and requires an auxiliary be: She's used to his drinking by now. – John Lawler Aug 13 '16 at 16:58
  • The used to idiom in question here is the one that doesn't take an auxiliary be and asserts the past truth while presupposing present falsity: She used to drink a lot. Not the same thing at all. (PS - Neither one is a phrasal verb, and neither one is the "imperfect tense", either.) – John Lawler Aug 13 '16 at 17:01
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    @John: That's what I meant when I said that's not exactly the same meaning. The one I treasure from you about this usage is I used to like her, but now I hate her. I didn’t use to like her but now I think she is great. Well, the bit I remember from you is that "nobody knows" whether to use use or used in such contexts. Is there any substance to the idea in that link? That negation is the relevant factor? – FumbleFingers Aug 13 '16 at 17:05
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    Everybody knows how to say it. It's the spelling that causes the problem. One more sin to add to the many committed in the name of English orthography (I'm not sure ortho- is a legitimate description here). – John Lawler Aug 13 '16 at 17:38
  • No! "Used" is a past form; it has no present tense form. – BillJ Aug 13 '16 at 18:33

Used to VP is a very complex idiom.
It does talk about the past, but it also talks (differently) about the present.

If you say

  • Bill used to live on Elm Street.

you are asserting -- saying, claiming, affirming --
that Bill lived on Elm Street at some past time.

But you are also presupposing
that Bill does not now live on Elm Street.

Presuppositions work differently from assertions. A presupposed statement is one that must be true -- no matter what -- in order to make sense of the sentence. A sentence and its negation have the same presupposition. Hence

  • Bill's brother has moved in with him


  • Bill's brother hasn't moved in with him

both presuppose that Bill has a brother. Note that neither one can be continued this way:

  • *Bill's brother has(n't) moved in with him, though Bill doesn't have a brother.

WTF? As can be seen presuppositions are sneaky, in that when they appear in conversation, they add to the context, and if not challenged will become presuppositions of the entire discourse. This leads to trick questions like

  • Have you stopped beating your wife?

Since X stop VP-ing presupposes that X has VP-ed in the past, this question cannot be answered truthfully either Yes or No by someone who does not have a wife, or who has never beaten their wife.

  • If you answer No, you admit by presupposition that you used to beat your wife
  • If you answer Yes, you admit all that, and also admit to beating your wife now

"Used to" is the imperfect tense, often describing past habitual actions with no clear start or end point except that both are in the past.

The verb "use" can be used in the present tense, like I am using it right now, or like you may use it in combination with an infinitive verb (beginning with "to"), but this is not the same as the "used to" construction that refers to the past. For example:

What do you use to make your cakes so moist?

The bowline knot can be used to tie a loop of fixed size.

The words "used to" are often used to describe habitual actions in the past [but not here].

In these examples, you can imagine "in order" implied in front of the infinitive verb (to make, to tie, to describe) in order to more easily remember that the "to" in each of those examples (and other present tense instances where "used" and "to" are found next to each other in that order) is associated with the infinitive verb.

"Used to" in the present can also be a synonym for "accustomed to" in describing a state of being, in association with a conjugation of "to be."

I am used to hearing the trains go by; the noise doesn't bother me [because I am used to it].

This implies that trains still go by on a regular basis.

Contrast that previous sentence with:

I used to hear the trains go by.

which implies "I don't hear the trains go by any more; I heard them only in the past."


I used to play cricket over the weekends.

The aspectual verb "use" has no present tense, only infinitival and past forms, so although the form "use" appears to be a present tense form, it is in fact the plain (infinitive) form which is only used in negatives and with inversion: "I didn’t use to play cricket"; “Did he use to play cricket"?

There is the added complication that "use" can be a lexical verb or an auxiliary one, though the books tell us that many speakers treat it as a lexical one. I suspect that’s due to the unacceptability for many people of the auxiliary use found in %"Playing cricket usedn’t to be allowed" and %"Used he to play cricket"?

Lexical Use (infinitival verb-form and do-support required in negatives and questions):

"He used to play cricket".

"He didn’t use to play cricket".

"Did he use to play cricket"?

Auxiliary Use (past tense verb-form, no do-support required):

"He used to play cricket".

%"He usedn’t to play cricket".

%"Used he to play cricket?

  • No present tense? What about "I'm used to having strawberries with my breakfast cereal"? – The Photon Aug 14 '16 at 15:51
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    That is a different "used". We're talking here about the aspectual verb "use". The "used" in your example is an adjective, not a verb. (cf. the aspectual verb "use" in I used to have strawberries with my breakfast cereal) – BillJ Aug 14 '16 at 16:06

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