Using “used to” vs “would” when expressing something done in the past

I understand how the phrase "used to" can describe something that was done in the past:

When I was growing up, my parents used to read to me at bedtime.

My dad used to take the family out for ice cream on Sundays in the summertime.

Although these sound fine in conversation, when I see this construct in writing, I often find the word "used" tripping me up. When I’m proofreading my own work, I find myself expecting "used" to be the past tense of the verb use (meaning, "to wield or to utilize"). In other words, when I initially read the word "used," my brain is expecting the word to be used differently – something like:

When I was growing up, my parents used… (a pair of pliers to open pickle jars).

My dad used… (his old t-shirts to wax the car).

So, I’ll sometimes reword the original, to eliminate the "used to":

When I was growing up, my parents would read to me at bedtime.

My dad took the family out for ice cream on Sundays in the summertime.

I realize that the construct is plenty common; when I type "my parents use" into Google – both in a web search, and a book search – I find more instances of:

my parents used [to do something]


my parents used [something].

So, my questions:

  • Is it worthwhile to make such edits? Might others occasionally stumble momentarily as they run across the word used used in that context while reading? (Or maybe that’s just me?)

  • Finally, is there a reason why (or a context where):

My brother used to loan money to his friends.

would be considered better than:

My brother would often loan money to his friends.

I’d be especially interested in answers from both native and non-native speakers of English.


For some reason “used to” seems informal to me. I don’t think I’d use it (no pun intended) in an academic essay.

But besides that, I don’t see a problem with it. Sure, there’s … not exactly an ambiguity, as once you read the complete sentence the meaning should be clear, but what I guess you could call a momentary ambiguity until the reader finishes the sentence. But you could say that about many words. There are lots of words in English that have multiple meanings depending on context. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of seeing a word, getting one meaning in our heads, and then reading a little further and having the jarring realization that that was not the intended meaning, so now we have to go back over the sentence and rethink.

So my vote is: In general, don’t worry about it and use if freely. But if you’re writing a paragraph where you are saying “used to” in the sense of “did in the past” and also “used to” in the sense of “employed for this purpose”, you might want to recast the sentence. Like, I think I would avoid writing, “The hammer that Bob used to use to build …”

Source : Link , Question Author : J.R. , Answer Author : Jay

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