This is some grammar that even advanced students find tricky. For most students, the differences just aren't clear or they don't exist in their own language. But mastering this bit of grammar is certainly worth one or two points in your exam, so do your best to learn it.
Here's how I try to teach it to my students, but it tends to take a few months until it really sticks!
Used To - Past States
I used to live in China.
I used to like fries more than burgers.
My football team used to be great.
That's easy, right? Where do I live now? Not China. These days I like burgers more than fries. And my football team was good in the past but nowadays they suck.
These are states. If you're not sure what a state is, think about iPhones, lights, nationalities.
There are two states about you and iPhones - either you have one or you don't. There are two states for lights - on or off. And there are two states for nationalities - either you are British or you are not.
Used to is used if those states are no longer true.
I used to have a Nokia 3310. (But now I have an iPhone.)
Anthony Hopkins used to be British. (But now he has an American passport.)
Got it? Let's move on.
Used To vs Would - To Describe a Past Habit
Here's a charming and true story about my grandmother, who was a Catholic and wanted me to grow up to be a choirboy or something. (Spoiler - that didn't happen!)
I used to go to church every Sunday. My grandmother used to bribe me - she used to give me a pound, and I used to walk across the field and the big, dangerous road, and I used to sit at the back and think about which chocolates to buy with my pound. When church was over, I used to go and spend my money and run home to eat it all.
This was something that happened every Sunday. That's a 'habit' - a recurring action. Now here's the same story with a slight difference. Can you spot it? Is it good English?
I would go to church every Sunday. My grandmother would bribe me - she'd give me a pound, and I'd walk across the field and the big, dangerous road, and I would sit at the back and think about which chocolates to buy with my pound. When church was over, I would go and spend my money and run home to eat it all.
Guess what? It's exactly the same. And it's perfect English. (Note, you shouldn't use only 'would' or only 'used to' - you should use a mix.)
Be Used To and Get Used To - For Things That Have Changed
This is where is gets tricky. Let me start by saying that in these structures, 'to' is a preposition, and as you know, if a verb follows a preposition you must use a gerund. Thus:
I'm used to hearing German.
When I lived in China, I had to get used to using chopsticks.
I can't get used to seeing the Alps.
So what's going on in these sentences?
1. I'm used to hearing German.
I'm from Manchester, and in England you don't hear much German. Just sometimes in a movie or in that song about balloons. So when I moved to Switzerland it was quite strange - everyone spoke German all the time! It was very strange... then quite strange... then not very strange... and then it was completely normal.
That's what 'be used to' is all about - the process of you becoming accustomed to something.
Getting Used to Hearing German
I hope that chart makes sense. In the first month, hearing German was about 20% normal. But when you hear German every day, and see newspapers in German, and watch football matches in German... it gets normal pretty quickly. Within three months it was completely okay.
2. When I lived in China, I had to get used to using chopsticks.
I moved to China when I was about 23 years old. I had used chopsticks a few times before then, but only for fun. When I arrived in China I realised that most restaurants gave you chopsticks. If I wanted to eat, I'd have to learn!
Now some things take longer to become normal than others. When it's about food, I'm a fast learner! The graph for my process of learning to use chopsticks looks something like this:
I Quickly Got Used to Using Chopsticks
On the third day a Chinese woman taught me the correct technique, and then it was really easy. She was a great teacher!
3. I can't get used to seeing the Alps.
I've talked about some things that I did get used to. But what about the opposite?
I grew up in Manchester, and we don't have mountains there. Then I lived in China, Taiwan, Poland, and Prague. The closest thing to a mountain in any of those places was a hill in Taiwan (one day it got a little bit of snow and everyone went crazy). So when I moved to Switzerland I had lived 30 years without seeing a mountain.
The Alps are visible from different places in Zurich, so you might think that it's totally normal for me now. But actually I rarely see them. So when I do I am always surprised. Oh! Look at those mountains! Cool!
Andrew Can't Get Used to Seeing Mountains
Maybe if I move to a flat with a good view of the Alps it'll start to be normal for me. But at the moment it's not normal. And actually that's okay, because it's a special feeling when I see them.
Used To vs Would vs Be Used To in the Cambridge Advanced Exam
Let's do a little test!
Write one word in each space:
1. When I was a child, I ______ sneak into my mother's room and try on all her makeup.
2. Every day when I was in school, I ______ to sit behind the tallest student so the teacher wouldn't ask me questions.
Choose the correct alternative:
3. I used to hate [name of football player] but now that he's on my team, I love him! I quickly got used to sing/to singing his name.
4. I never used to eat/to eating onions, but now they're my favourite.
5. Andrew puts so much work into this website and helping us - all for free! Maybe I should click on some adverts to help him pay the costs. I'm not used to click/to clicking on adverts, but if it helps him out, I'll do it! Anyway, I need a new pair of sunglasses so it's win-win.
6. I will never get used to say/to saying gerunds after the word 'to'!
Complete the second sentence so that it means the same as the first sentence, using the word given.
7. David De Gea quickly became accustomed to his new life in England.
David De Gea ________________________ living in England. (4 words.)
Boom! Now you know everything!
NEW: There’s a worksheet you can print - get it here on my new website: Used to vs would worksheet
(Oh, wait, there is one thing I forgot. The negative form of 'I used to China' is 'I didn't use to live in China.' I'm not sure Cambridge will include that in the exam because most native speakers write 'I didn't used to live in China.' Technically it's a mistake, but if 90% of native speakers make the same mistake, is it still a mistake?)