How to teach used to, be used to and get used to

Summary: How to contrast the past verb and adjective meanings of "used to", including used to, be used to and get used to games/ practice activities.

This article is on how to teach the different meanings and uses of “used to” in “I used to smoke in my office”, “I’m used to smoking in my office” and “I will never get used to smoking in my office”. Many students find dealing with the verb “used to” and the adjective “used to” in one lesson confusing. In fact, I’d recommend most teachers to split the two topics up as much as possible (and there are separate articles on teaching those points on their own on this site). However, even when the teacher doesn’t choose to deal with “I used to” and “be/ get used to” together, students tend to mix them up and ask questions about the difference, and many textbooks make it difficult to separate the two. There are also some topics that can naturally bring up both meanings. This article therefore gives some tips on the least confusing ways to bring them together, either in a planned lesson on both topics or to deal with student difficulties and questions.

 

Contrasting “I used to”, “be used to” and “get used to”

The verb “used to” in “I used to live in a shared house” is used to talk about past habits and feelings, usually ones which are no longer true now. In common with other past verbs, the negative and question forms of “I used to” are “I didn’t use to like him” and “Did you use to study programming at school?” These include the infinitive form “use to” (although it is usually pronounced the same as “used to”). Unlike in some other languages, there is no present tense of the verb “used to”, perhaps because the Present Simple tense already has a similar meaning in sentences like “I (usually) take my washing home to my mother”. As in verbs like “want to” and “need to”, the final “to” in “I used to attend…” is part of the infinitive that follows (“to attend” in this case). This means that “used to” cannot be followed by a noun or pronoun without a verb (so not “I used to it” X). 

In contrast, in “I am used to dealing with huge numbers of emails” and “I will get used to the smell eventually”, “used to” is an adjective with a similar form and meaning to “be/ get accustomed to” and “be/ become familiar with”. In common with all other English adjectives, it doesn’t change in negative and question forms like “Were you already used to waking up so early?” and “Are you getting used to not using meat?” As can be seen with the examples in this paragraph, “be/ get used to” is used in a wide range of tenses, most commonly with “will”, Present Continuous and Present Perfect. The “to” at the end of “be/ get used to” is a preposition like the prepositions at the end of “be accustomed to” and “be familiar with”. As with all other prepositions, it can be followed by a noun, by a pronoun or by a gerund (because pronouns and gerunds are similar to nouns). For example, you can say “I’ve almost got used to bland food/ eating bland food/ it” (but not “I’ve almost got used to eat bland food” X).  

To summarise the differences (with the verb in “I used to enjoy” on the left each time):

  • means a past habit/ means being accustomed to something, something being normal or something not being strange
  • only used to talk about the past/ used to talk about the past, present and future
  • “used to” is a past verb, so changes to the infinitive in questions and negative forms/ “used to” is an adjective, so doesn’t change in questions and negative forms (with the verbs “be” and “get” changing instead)
  • always followed by the infinitive of a verb/ followed by a noun, pronoun or -ing form of a verb
  • never followed directly by a noun, pronoun or gerund/ never followed by the infinitive

Because of their very different meanings and uses, the verb “used to” and the adjective “used to” also tend to go together with very different key words. For the verb in “He used to…”, key words include things like:

  • all the time
  • at the weekend
  • before
  • every day
  • every time
  • in the morning
  • never
  • often
  • rarely/ seldom/ hardly ever
  • sometimes
  • student
  • until
  • when
  • younger

For “be/ get used to”, common collocations and other words in the same sentence include:

  • almost/ nearly
  • already – still (not)
  • can’t
  • difficult/ hard/ tough/ impossible – easy
  • eventually/ in the end – never
  • gradually/ slowly – quickly/ immediately/ straightaway/ instantly
  • have (no/ some) difficulty
  • have problems
  • have to
  • help
  • not long – a long time
  • take + time (“take years”, etc)
  • too

 

Common student problems with used to, be used to and get used to

The most common problem which could cause communication problems is mixing up the two forms in mistakes like “I used to having breakfast in bed” X and “Did you are used to see famous people in local shops?” X. Trying to practise both forms together is likely to increase such mistakes (at least in the short term), but these kinds of errors are also an inevitable consequence of most students having studied “I used to” many times before they first encounter “be/ get used to”. Depending on the topic of the conversation and what was said earlier, it could be that such mistakes make it difficult or impossible to work out if the speaker is talking about past habits or the feeling of being accustomed. To show students the importance of correctness and to cut down the number of corrections to a manageable number, you should pick examples where there could be pairs of contrasting phrases. For example, “I used to get an email from her every day” and “I’m used to getting an email from her every day” are possible corrections of “I used to getting an email from her every day” X, depending on what the speaker meant, and therefore correction is easy to explain the importance of.

 

How to present and practise used to, be used to and get used to

Although there are not a lot of examples, there are some situations in which we naturally talk about how things were different in the past and so how easy, difficult, quick or slow it was to become accustomed to changes. For example, older students could talk about how they used to do things without so much technology when they were younger, the first time that they used some new technology, and how quickly they were able to adapt to the new way of doing things. Although it’s not quite as natural, the same two uses of “used to” could also come up in predicting what problems immigrants such as refugees would have in a new country because of how different their previous lifestyles were. Or if your students have lots of imagination, they may appreciate the topics of someone who suddenly became rich and/ or famous, a time traveller from the past, or a caveman who has been thawed out in the modern day. Such conversations could be the basis of a text to present the language and/ or roleplay speaking.

For more controlled speaking, my favourite activity is sentence completion games, in which students first complete sentence stems that they are given and then do some communicative practice with them. Sentence stems for both meanings of “used to” could include “I used to… and I should probably start doing it again” and “It took me a long time to get used to…” For this language point I tend to play a guessing game in which they read out the part that they have written (not including the sentence stem on the worksheet). Their partner guesses which sentence they wrote that in, using meaning and grammar clues including whether their words start with infinitive or noun/ -ing/ pronoun.  

The same sentence stems can also be used for a bluffing game or to find things in common. After doing the activity, students could be asked to try to remember which key words went with which form of “used to” in the sentence stems, to fill in gapped sentence stems, or correct wrong versions of the same sentence stems.

Bluffing and things in common could also be done as a dice game, with the numbers representing:

  1. used to
  2. didn’t use to
  3. am used to
  4. am not used to
  5. get used to
  6. not get used to

Similar to finding things in common, students could also try to agree on and complete sentences which are less personal like “We guess that people used to be happier…”, “People moving to this city would find it difficult to get used to…” and “Most young people are not used to…, and that’s a bad thing”.

The key words above could also be given as a list for students to use during discussion of topics that include both past actions and getting accustomed to things such as comparing school life and university life or comparing full time education and work.

As well as the roleplays mentioned above, students could pretend to be an older employee who wants to reintroduce an old way of doing business or an old retro product and younger employees who argue against it. Something similar might also work for introducing something retro into a town such as a tram, horse-drawn carriages or cobbled streets. They could also possibly roleplay interviewing a homeless person who used to live a life of luxury but now prefers their new lifestyle.

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Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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