Don't the two sentences:

  1. I used to drink coffee every day.
  2. I was used to drinking coffee every day.

refer to a past habit? If not, what is the difference?


Yes, they both refer to a past habit, but the meanings are different. "Used to" is used in two ways.

I used to drink coffee every day.

This just recounts what you drank and how often you drank it, and implies that this was in the past and you don't do it any more. This usage of "used to" means that something existed or repeatedly happened in the past but does not exist or happen now.

I was used to drinking coffee every day.

This describes how your body handled drinking coffee every day. The meaning could be "I used to drink coffee every day and I was accustomed to it, so it didn't make me feel agitated. But if I did that now, I would never sleep at night.

This usage of "used to" refers to being familiar with something so that it seems normal or usual.

See M-W.


Your two sentence are slightly different in meaning, one is about drinking coffee, the other about the habit of drinking coffee, the habit aspect is implicit in the your first sentence and explicit in the second

I used to drink coffee every day.
habitually I drank coffee every day

I was used to drinking coffee every day.
I had become accustomed to drinking coffee every day.


The phrase "used to" functions more or less like a modal, similarly to "did" (though with exceptional behaviour when there is do-support).

I used to drink coffee every day.
→ I formerly drank coffee every day.

The phrase "be used to" is an entirely different animal. Here "used" has become an adjective.

I am used to drinking coffee every day.
→ I am accustomed to drinking coffee every day.

I was used to drinking coffee every day.
→ I was accustomed to drinking coffee every day.

There's no particular connection between the usage of these words, despite their apparent similarity.

  • 1
    The "used" in "I was used to something" is not just like an adjective -- it is an adjective! – BillJ Jun 8 '17 at 7:38
  • @BillJ Fair enough. It's hard for me to shake the historical perspective as past participle. – Luke Sawczak Jun 8 '17 at 12:32

This is explained by Columbia Univ Prof. John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford), in Words on the Move (2016). I quote pp. 109-112 beneath.

Even the way we say used to gives away that more is going on than our simply saying the word use. Imagine someone pronouncing the used to in that sentence as "yuzed to," the way we would pronounce used in She used a pen. But no—to say "She yuuuzed to live in Columbus" would sound distinctly oleaginous; no one would even venture it. The thoroughly correct pronunciation of used to in the sense intended in She used to live in Columbus is "yoosta." One might venture "yoostu" to preserve the pronunciation of the to, but the used part has to be "yoos," not "yooz."
  Used to is, then, something quite different from use. Spell- ing gives away that used to ("yoosta") was once—used to form of use. But it isn't now, and the difference is that

use is a "word" word while used to ("yoosta") is grammar. use is a word meaning to utilize. used to is, on the other hand, a tool we use to express that something happened on a habitual basis in the past. It fulfills a function right along. side the -ed suffix we use to express the simple past: simple past is he talked; the past in a continuous way is he used to talk. To anyone who has taken French or Spanish, this dif- ference will recall the two choices of past in those languages, such as the preterite and imperfect in Spanish: he talked once: hablö; he was talking: hablaba. In an alternate universe, English would also have an ending to indicate the 'fmper- fect" to parallel the -ed one, but that just happens not to be the way things worked out.
  The path from use to "yoosta" begins with the kinds of changes we saw in the previous chapter, Of the kind that take "blessed" through "innocent" and "weak" to "silly." When it comes to using something, chances are you don't use it just once. Typically one makes use of something regu- larly, over a long period of time—use is something one most readily thinks of as long-term: usage, as it were. That reality hovered over use, to the point that long-term usage (habit) became a secondary meaning of the word. A nice example is Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan intoning in 1651, "Long use obtaineth the authority of a law," where use could be substituted for by practice or habit. Set phrases of the period such as use and custom and as the use is (which meant "which is the usual") further indicated this new meaning.
  Aware of this meaning, we can more easily understand Late Middle English sentences such as a record from 1550 that one Thomas Casberd has used to set his cart in the street,

(In the actual spelling: "Thomas Casberd hathe vsid to his carte in the streate.") That meant, Mr. Casberd "used," as had the custom of, parking in the street. Or John Milton, in in, 1670, wrote in his history of England about "the English then useing to let grow on their upper-lip large mustachio's."
  So, to an English speaker of this time, use could mean "have the habit of," or to translate into modern slang, "has this thing where he .. ." From here, the path to today's "yoosta" is clearer than if we just start with the "utilize" meaning. Over time, the meaning generalized, such that one could say used to to refer not only to someone harboring a habit, but also to habitual or ongoing things themselves, regardless of who, if anybody, was responsible for them. In 1550, Thomas Casberd has used to set his cart in the street referred to Casberd's having regularly executed an action, and Milton's mustachioed men did that to their faces on purpose. However, She used to live in Columbus doesn't refer to the woman regularly executing the action of living in Columbus, which wouldn't even make sense. It refers to her having lived in Columbus ongoingly. One can now also say something like Based on this data, she used to be the only person with type O blood in the village, when the woman in question didn't even know what her blood type was and/or certainly wasn't performing the action of having that blood type once a day. Her blood type just was what it was, and as some- thing that didn't change, was an ongoing state—hence used to. used to doesn't even have to be about a living being: My cello used to have a richer sound. Cellos don't have customs.
  Used to has gone from meaning "was in the habit of doing" to, well, "yoosta." We use "yoosta" whether the issue is a

deliberate action (He used to ski), a passive state of being (He used to hallucinate), or anything that was ongoing in the past (It used to be easier to find a mailbox, where the "it" in question is too abstract to imagine practicing anything or having hab- its). I liked it the way it used to be—again, how could this abstract "it" do anything habitually in the way that Thomas Cas- berd did? Used to is now not a word but a tool, one that puts a statement into the past habitual: a piece of grammar.*

*This new meaning, practice, yielded another development of use: to practice was to become accustomed, or to accustom Someone else. The mother seal will be seen, a book of natural history noted in 1783, to "use her little ones to live under water," meaning to accustom them to it, not to exploit them. When in 1826 a woman is said to have taken a man and "used him in her company," it can seem rather bawdy unless we know. that the writer meant "accustomed him to her company." Here, then, is the source of the expression to be used to something, quite an oddity meaning of "utilize."

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