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I understand how the phrase "used to" can describe something that was done in the past:

When I was growing up, my parents used to read to me at bedtime.

My dad used to take the family out for ice cream on Sundays in the summertime.

Although these sound fine in conversation, when I see this construct in writing, I often find the word "used" tripping me up. When I'm proofreading my own work, I find myself expecting "used" to be the past tense of the verb use (meaning, "to wield or to utilize"). In other words, when I initially read the word "used," my brain is expecting the word to be used differently – something like:

When I was growing up, my parents used... (a pair of pliers to open pickle jars).

My dad used... (his old t-shirts to wax the car).

So, I'll sometimes reword the original, to eliminate the "used to":

When I was growing up, my parents would read to me at bedtime.

My dad took the family out for ice cream on Sundays in the summertime.

I realize that the construct is plenty common; when I type "my parents use" into Google – both in a web search, and a book search – I find more instances of:

my parents used [to do something]

than:

my parents used [something].

So, my questions:

  • Is it worthwhile to make such edits? Might others occasionally stumble momentarily as they run across the word used used in that context while reading? (Or maybe that's just me?)

  • Finally, is there a reason why (or a context where):

My brother used to loan money to his friends.

would be considered better than:

My brother would often loan money to his friends.

I'd be especially interested in answers from both native and non-native speakers of English.

  • 7
    Fun linguistics note: this is one of the seven verbs Pullum playfully calls therapy verbs (want, prospective go, habitual used, obligation have, obligation got, ought, passive supposed) in which he analyzes -to not as a separate word (as in the so-called phrasal verbs) but as a suffix (forming wanna, gonna, usta, hafta, gotta, oughta, sposta), leaving the stem as a morphological head (just as under- in undergo leaves go as the head, giving us under[gone] and under[went] rather than [undergo]ed). See The Morpholexical Nature of English to-Contraction (1997). – snailcar Oct 3 '13 at 10:58
  • I asked about "used to" a while back on ELU in a somewhat different way. The answers I got won't answer this question, but may provide some useful perspective. – Pops Oct 3 '13 at 18:04
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For some reason "used to" seems informal to me. I don't think I'd use it (no pun intended) in an academic essay.

But besides that, I don't see a problem with it. Sure, there's ... not exactly an ambiguity, as once you read the complete sentence the meaning should be clear, but what I guess you could call a momentary ambiguity until the reader finishes the sentence. But you could say that about many words. There are lots of words in English that have multiple meanings depending on context. I'm sure we've all had the experience of seeing a word, getting one meaning in our heads, and then reading a little further and having the jarring realization that that was not the intended meaning, so now we have to go back over the sentence and rethink.

So my vote is: In general, don't worry about it and use if freely. But if you're writing a paragraph where you are saying "used to" in the sense of "did in the past" and also "used to" in the sense of "employed for this purpose", you might want to recast the sentence. Like, I think I would avoid writing, "The hammer that Bob used to use to build ..."

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    I see what you mean; "have" can work the same way (as in, "I have to mow the lawn" vs "I have a lawn mower" vs "I have a friend coming over to mow the lawn." If desired, those first two could be changed to "I need to mow the lawn" and "I own a lawn mower.") – J.R. Oct 4 '13 at 9:09
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    +1 I don't think I'd write used to at all, unless chatting informally, but I say it often. – Jim Reynolds Apr 25 '15 at 16:04
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It seems to me that would has much more potential for ambiguity: it may be employed in a past-futurive or a volitive or a conditional sense as well as the habitual.

The plan was that I would wash the car and my father would wax it.
We agreed that if I would brush my teeth and go to bed quickly my parents would read to me for half an hour.
If they were in need my brother would often loan money to his friends.

The habitual sense of used to, on the other hand, is clearly marked by the following infinitive.

So if ambiguity were the only consideration, I think used to would be preferred. However, ambiguity is not the only consideration.

  • It seems to me that used to is employed most often to signify a past practice which is no longer followed or a past state which no longer obtains.

    I used to watch SEC football, but now I only watch baseball.
    John used to be a banker, but now he's a farmer.

  • It seems to me that habitual would is only used when the past context is unambiguously implicit or has already been explicitly established. To start a narrative "My brother would often lend money to his friends" strikes me as unhappy, possibly because it is so ambiguous. Even on the most granular scale, "When I was a kid my parents would read to me at bedtime" seems happier than "My parents would read to me at bedtime when I was a kid.

But as a general principle, I think you pays your money and you takes your choice.


By the way: historically, used to here is the past tense of use to. Present-tense uses to is all over 16th and 17th century texts, and Biblical use sustained it down to the 19th century. I have no idea why it fell out of use.

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  • Just to be clear, I realize how the "following infinitive" in used to eliminates the ambiguity. It's simply a "momentary stumble" my first time through the sentence – but it happens to me even when I'm proofreading my own writing! And you've done a good job picking apart would, but there are plenty of other wordings I could have used, like: "My brother often loaned money to his friends." (I'm not unhappy with this answer, but there's room for more to be said if others want to weigh in.) – J.R. Oct 3 '13 at 17:05

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