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The difference between "used to," "be used to," and "get used to" (English grammar and vocabulary)



Recommended level: Upper intermediate.


QUICK REFERENCE

  • "Used to" always refers to the past. Use it to talk about habits, states, or facts that were true before, but which aren't true now. Example: "We used to live in San Diego." This means we lived in San Diego before, but we don't live there now.

  • "Be used to" is typically used in the past and present. It refers to the state of being familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to something. Example: "Beatriz is used to showering in the morning." This means she is accustomed to showering in the morning, not in the evening. This behaviour is something she is comfortable with and familiar with.

  • "Get used to" can be used in all tenses. It is the sister phrase of "be used to," but it focuses on the process of becoming familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to something. For example: "We're getting used to living together." This means my roommate and I are learning how to live together. We are still becoming comfortable with our living arrangement.

  • "Be used to" and "get used to" are sister phrases. "Used to" is separate because of its focus on the past.

For many English learners, three of the most challenging phrases to understand are "used to," "be used to," and "get used to." Fortunately, the difference is clear when we discuss the phrases individually. The true challenge is using the phrases confidently in English conversation. By reading and interacting with this article, I hope you will feel more comfortable and familiar with these phrases in just a few minutes.


Let's start with "used to."


Used to

"I used to take the train to school every day."

"Used to" always refers to the past. If you used to do something, you did it regularly before, but you don't do it now. For example, "I used to read a lot." This means I read a lot at some point in the past--it was one of my habits--but I don't read a lot now. Here are a few more examples that show this usage:


"I used to watch cartoons on Saturday mornings." (I don't watch them these days.)


"My brother and I used to take the bus to school." (I'm not in school anymore. I'm just talking about how my brother and I used to get to school.)


"Our cousins used to visit our house every weekend." (They don't do this anymore.)


"Daniel used to play the piano." (He doesn't play the piano now.)


"Used to" is not only for things you did, but things that were simply true in the past. Note the examples:


"We used to have a dog named Sparky." (We don't have one now. He probably passed away.)


"Barack Obama used to be the President of the United States." (He isn't the current president.)


"I used to live in Los Angeles." (I don't live in Los Angeles now.)


"She used to believe that unicorns were real." (She doesn't believe this anymore.)


"I used to work at McDonald's." (I don't work at McDonald's anymore.)


"They used to be friends." (They're not friends in the present.)


"I didn't use to worry so much." (I worry more now than I did in the past.)


Note that when you write "used to," you must exclude the "d" if you are asking a question with the auxiliary "did," or negating a sentence with "didn't." Also, "used to" is always followed by a base verb. For example, "play," "have," "read," "do," and so on.


Now it's your turn. Answer the questions by starting with "I used to":


Where did you use to go to school when you were a kid? (Ex: "I used to go to Rockfield Elementary School.")


How did you use to get to school when you were a kid? (Ex: "When I was a kid, my dad used to drive me to school."


Did you use to believe anything that you don't believe now? (Ex: "I used to believe that ghosts were real.")


Whom did you use to ask for help if you needed it? (Ex: "If I needed help, I used to talk to my dad.")


To review, use "used to" to talk about things that were true in the past, but which are not true in the present. The things can be habits, states, or facts.


Now, let's look at "be used to."


Be used to

"I'm not used to waking up this early."

First, a couple of grammar notes. The "be" in "be used to" must be conjugated to match its subject. For example, "I am used to," "she is used to," "they are used to," and so on. For the negative form, use "I am not used to," "she is not used to," and so on. Also, "be used to" can be used in the past, present, and future, but it is most commonly used in the past and present. For the past, use "I was used to," "You were used to," "He was used to," and so on.


So, what does "be used to" mean?


Simply, if you are used to something, you are familiar and comfortable with it. A good synonym for "be used to something" is "be accustomed to something." For instance, you can be used to the weather in your town, village, or city. This means the weather in your town, village, or city is not strange or unfamiliar to you. You know what to expect from it, and you know how to handle it. Here are a few other examples. Note that "be used to" is always followed by a noun, noun phrase, or gerund (verb+ing).


"I live in Canada. I'm used to driving on the right side of the road. I'm not used to driving on the left." (Driving on the left side of the road is unfamiliar to me.)


"Are you used to your new phone yet?" (Are you comfortable using your new phone yet?)


"I'm a teacher, so I'm used to speaking in front of people." (I'm comfortable speaking in public.)


"Jennifer has been very angry lately. I'm not used to her new behaviour." (Jennifer's recent attitude change is new for me, and I don't know how to react to it.)


"The weather in Seattle was really rainy. I wasn't used to it." (The weather in Seattle was different than the weather in my city. I wasn't accustomed to it.)


Now it's your turn. Practice by answering the questions. You might have to use "I'm used to," "I'm not used to," "I was used to," or "I wasn't used to."


Are you used to waking up before 6am? (Ex: "Yes, I'm used to waking up before 6am." "No, I'm not used to waking up before 6am.")


What is a type of food that you are not used to eating? (Ex: "I'm not used to eating spicy food.")


What is an activity which you weren't used to in the past, but which you are used to now? (Ex: "A year ago, I wasn't used to going to the gym three times per week. I'm used to it now, though.")


Are you more used to reading physical books or digital books? (This question is asking whether you are you more comfortable reading physical books or digital books. Answer with "I am more used to reading..." or "I am equally used to reading both.")


To review, use "be used to" to talk about things you are familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to.


Finally, let's look at "get used to."


Get used to

"I'm getting used to my funny roommate."

"Get used to" is the sister phrase of "be used to." The difference is that "be used to" refers to the state of being familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to something, while "get used to" refers to the process of becoming familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to something. It is a very flexible phrase, and it can be used in the past, present, or future. In the present, it is often used in the continuous form. For example, "I'm getting used to wearing my new shoes." This means I am in the process of becoming familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to my new shoes. They still feel a little strange on my feet, but I know that after a few days, I will get used to them. I will become familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to them.


Here are a few more examples. Just like "be used to," note that you must follow "get used to" with a noun, noun phrase, or gerund (verb+ing):


"Monica is getting used to living alone for the first time." (She is learning how to feel comfortable living alone.)


"It can take a long time to get used to driving a manual car." (It takes some time to become comfortable with driving a manual car.)


"You're not used to it now, but you will get used to it over time." (It's new and/or strange to you now, but it will feel normal after some time has passed.)


"How long did it take you to get used to the new customer service program?" (How long did it take you to feel comfortable using the new customer service program?)


"This is a hard job, but I believe you can get used to it." (I believe you can get accustomed to this job. It won't be hard forever.)


Now it's your turn. Answer the questions.


What is a new routine or activity that you are getting used to? (Ex: "I'm getting used to going to bed before 11pm.")


How long did it take you to get used to reading comfortably in English? (Ex: "It took me about eight months to get used to reading comfortably in English.")


What is something that you got used to very quickly? (Ex: "I got used to riding a bike very quickly.")


What is something you want to get used to? (Ex: "I want to get used to jogging on a regular basis.")


To review, use "get used to" to talk about the process of becoming familiar with, comfortable with, and accustomed to something.


To conclude, here is a situation which shows all three phrases in use:


"I didn't use to wear glasses. However, I had to start wearing them in 2021. In the beginning, I wasn't used to them, but after a few days, I got used to them. Now, I'm definitely used to them."

"Don't worry. You'll get used to it."

I hope you found this page useful and that you are more used to using "used to," "be used to," and "get used to." If you're not, don't worry. Learning is a process. With regular practice, you can get used to the most challenging phrases and grammar points that English has to offer.


If you would like to continue leveling up your English vocabulary and conversation skills, I recommend checking out my book, 300 Practical English Words and Phrases. Until next time, thanks for studying with me! I wish you success on your learning journey.


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