I'm teaching an intermediate ESL class that focuses on writing. There is a lot of grammar, but it is rudimentary and I am trying not to confuse the students with too many complicated terms. In class today we did a lesson on gerunds and infinitives and one of the sentences that was used in the textbook was:

Which meals are you used to eating in a fast-food restaurant?

Of course the combination of "to" + "eating" confused everyone. I did a quick aside to clarify the situation, but promised to revisit the sentence next class. Now I'm stuck because I realize that I don't entirely understand the grammar myself.

Is "be used to" simply a phrasal verb that takes an object, which in this case is a gerund (eating)? Alternatively, is "used to" a complement that requires an object? How would you explain the situation using minimal jargon?

Any clarification would be appreciated. Thanks in advance.

  • 1
    No, not a phrasal verb. The adjective "used" selects the preposition "to" which in turn takes a complement comprising either an NP, as in your example, or a non-finite clause, as in Ed was used to occasionally being wrong. So it is used+prep+comp.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 19:52
  • The specific example you've focused on strikes me as an entirely "natural" usage where you could simply replace used with, for example, accustomed. Much more interesting (and "idiomatic", insofar as it's not easily explained by reference to similar constructions) would be Which meals did you used to eat there? Where neither I nor most other native speakers would have any idea whether that should be ...did you use to eat... (and I suspect those who do have an opinion might be pretty evenly split! :) Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 19:53
  • Also consider that they could get confused by it because of the imperfect tense: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperfect
    – Dog Lover
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 22:11

3 Answers 3


The expressions be used to, get used to and become used to are rarely used in other than the complete forms. An exception is :

Used to getting all his own way, Ben threw a tantrum.

However, this can be interpreted as a deleted form of 'As he was ...', and a stodgier alternative is 'Used as he was to getting all his own way, Ben threw a tantrum.'

Though it's not easy to find a reference saying that 'be used to' is best considered as a transitive multi-word verb (in ESL-speak 'a phrasal verb that takes an object'), My English Pages certainly seems to treat it as unitary:

Be used to is used to say that something is normal, not unusual.

Jane Lawson, in an article at Daily Step English, concurs:

So the structure [is]: ... ...

be used to or get used to + noun or gerund (for example: I am used to living in London.)

However, Quirk in ACGEL labels 'used to' in this sense an adjectival, which one could compare to 'familiar with'. There aren't many verbs that would work in front of this adjectival (if one decides to analyse it as such), when you think about it. Be, get, become, seem, feel, grow spring to mind.

I'd say that the construction falls in a grey area where {tMWV + DO} and {link verb + adjectival (with complement)} overlap.

Pointing out that to is the infinitive marker in 'I want to leave' but not in 'I am used to eating ...' may be helpful.

  • I agree, I think it could really be thought of either way. From a pedagogical standpoint I will probably present it as an adjectival since the course textbook provides a number of other examples with similar construction ("familiar with" as you mentioned, "afraid of," "good/bad at" etc.). Thanks for your input!
    – L. Willmer
    Commented Aug 10, 2016 at 22:32
  • MWVs with the particle-or-whatever 'to' are rare. 'Heave to' is an intransitive example; 'come to' is probably a deletion of 'come to ones senses'; 'see to', 'look to' and 'take to' in the non-literal senses are transitive examples. 'Can you see to Mrs Arbuthnot / fixing the lock?' He has really taken to Mrs Arbuthnot / fishing.' Commented Aug 11, 2016 at 14:12

There are two idioms that have the same words and the same special pronunciation
(used to in both is pronounced /yustə/ or /yustu/), but they have different meaning and grammar)

  1. NP used to VP

    • Nixon used to be President.
      is an idiomatic construction that conveys a complex tense meaning, viz:

      • it asserts that NP VP-ed in the past (Nixon was President once)

      • it presupposes that NP does not VP any more (Nixon is not President now).

  2. NP be used to NP (along with its inchoatives get/become/come to be NP)

    • We're not used to spicy food, so we'd like something mild, if possible.
    • One gets used to being President after one term. (gerund clauses are NPs)
      is a different construction that means the same as be accustomed to.

The confusing part is that a complement clause -- gerund, infinitive, tensed, or wh-clause --
is in fact used as a noun phrase in the sentence, so if an idiom calls for to plus an object,
that object can be a gerund as easily as an infinitive.


To be used to (verb: ing) something is a verb with the same meaning as: to be accustomed to. It is a passive construction. And it exists in contradistinction to: to use. I think the two have to be presented together.

Compare: I used to go skiing on the weekends. [repeating action in the past, the "imperfect" in English]

I am used to (am accustomed) going skiing on the weekends. [It is my habit]

It's just a defective verb (can't be used in any other way like some modals).

For the short of it, I would teach both together. And show how the two are very different and mean different things.

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