Session 2

In the past, we sent letters but now we email and text. It’s time to find out how to use used to to talk about past habits and situations that have changed. Have a look at the grammar explanations and do some activities to help you learn the structure.

Sessions in this unit

Session 2 score

0 / 12

  • 0 / 6
    Activity 1
  • 0 / 6
    Activity 2
  • 0 / 0
    Activity 3

Activity 2

'Used to' and the past simple

What's the difference?

In the previous activity, we looked at how to talk about the past using used to. But, we can also talk about the past with past simple. Is there a difference? Well, let’s look at some examples first and try to work it out.

Read the text and try the activity

Here are our first two examples:

  • I used to speak French very well when I was at school.
  • I spoke French when my friend from Paris came to visit.

Think about these things for both sentences: Can this person speak French now? (Yes, no, or maybe) And was this action (speaking French) something that happened over a long time? Or are we talking about a specific time?

Think about it a little more – the answers are just below!

In the first sentence, the speaker could speak French when he/she was at school but has forgotten a lot of it now. Also, this person must have taken French lessons for a long time to speak ‘very well’. That means this is something that was true in the past but is not true now so used to is preferred.

In the second sentence, the speaker is referring to a single occasion when he/she spoke French. This may have happened recently and this person can probably still speak French now. We use past simple here because this happened once and this person has (most likely) not forgotten how to speak French since then.

Here are some more examples:

  • I used to like pop music when I was a teenager. (This was true in the past. I don’t like pop music now.)
  • I really liked that new song I heard on the radio this morning. (This refers to one song and a specific time.)
  • Daniel used to drink a lot of coffee. (This was true at some point in the past. He has either given up or he drinks less now).
  • Daniel drank a lot of coffee during the meeting. (In this sentence we are talking about one occasion, a meeting).
  • My grandparents never used to own a car. (This was in the past but no time is given. They do own a car now).
  • My grandparents didn’t own a car until they were retired. (There is a specific time mentioned through the phrase ‘until they were retired’.)
  • Did you use to make dinner? (We are asking if this was a regular habit in the past)
  • Did you make dinner? (We are asking if this person made dinner today).

However, in some cases there is little/no difference in meaning:

  • I used to live in a house with a huge garden before I came to London.
  • I lived in a house with a huge garden before I came to London.

In this case, both sentences can be used to talk about something that was true in the past but is different now.

To do

Do you know when to use used to and when to use past simple? Test yourself with our quiz.

Is it 'used to' or the past simple?

6 Questions

Choose the best verb form to fill the gap

Congratulations you completed the Quiz
Excellent! Great job! Bad luck! You scored:
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Time to listen to 6 Minute Grammar – Neil and Catherine give you more help to understand used to. Soon you’ll be able to say ‘It used to be difficult to learn English, but now it’s much easier!’

Session Grammar

  • We use the phrase used to when we want to talk about something we did regularly in the past, but we don’t do now. We also use it to talk about a past fact which is no longer true.

    used to work at a restaurant, but now I work at a library.

    NOT: I used to eat some cake last Saturday night. (‘Saturday night’ was just one time, so it was not something done regularly.) 

    Used to can help us to compare activities in the past and now.

    I used to work at a restaurant in the past, and now I work at a library.

    When we say used to, we do not do something now.

    used to work at a restaurant. I quit that job, and then got a new job at a library.

    The different forms of this phrase are used to or did / did not / didn’t + use to