I know the answer seems pretty obvious, but I looked everywhere I could and found no answer. I found no reliable source clearly stating that “use to” is a phrasal verb. Allow me to explain to you why I am confused about this issue. Take the following sentence in the past simple:

“I used to eat watermelon.”

“Use to,” has only one use: to introduce past habits (which were lost, obviously).

The sentence above also makes it clear that “use to” is a transitive verb. But what kind of object is “eat” then?

The true source of my confusion is that it seems that “use to” takes the “to” away from the infinitive, probably to avoid repetition. If you tell me that “eat” in the sentence above is, indeed, in the infinitive, then I am at peace. It will be clear to me that “use to” is a phrasal verb. If not, does “to” belong to “eat” then? And if he latter is the case, is “use” always common verb and most people simply incorrectly write it together with “to?”

Thanks in advance.

  • In the sense of habit (as opposed to agency), use (in the past tense only, of course) licenses a to-infinitive. (But not a bare infinitive: you can't say I used eat watermelon.) This is the same syntax as the synonymous "It was my habit to eat watermelon". Ite in pace.
    – deadrat
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 9:17
  • Wonderful! Thank you! Then “use to,” as a phrasal verb, does not exist. Do I understand that correctly?
    – user199794
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 9:33
  • Yes, I used to X is a special idiomatic usage meaning It was my habit to do X, where to X is the infinitive form of a verb. One test for a phrasal verb is whether it's possible to analyze the verb and preposition literally. For instance I look after my brother doesn't mean I look beyond him. It means I take care of him. So look after is phrasal. On the other hand I look at my brother means literally that I hold my gaze on him. Look at is not phrasal.
    – deadrat
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 9:39
  • 'Phrasal verb' has so many definitions that you need to specify which one you mean, or (in my opinion preferably) ditch the term. CED has: << Dare, need, ought to and used to are often called semi-modal because in some ways they are formed like modal verbs and in some ways they are like other main verbs. John daren’t tell Ruth about the accident. [John used to tell Ruth everything that happened to him.] So CED regards used to as a 'semi-modal verb'. Others regard it as a semi-modal (not a true ... Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 16:17
  • verb). Either way, it doesn't seem to be covered by most definitions of 'phrasal verbs'. I'd have it in the semi-modal class, not in the multi-word verb subclass (eg 'take off' {impersonate}, 'put up with' {tolerate}, 'heave to'). But certainly a two-orthographic-word lexeme. Commented Nov 14, 2020 at 16:18

2 Answers 2


It's an archaism that passed (no pun intended) into common use because it was useful.

If you look up alternative meanings of "use" in a good historical dictionary you should find it means "to have the habit", and also "to treat" [a person in a certain way].

English sure is flexible with its idiom!

  • 1
    Michael, while your answer is fitting, this site strives to provide objective answers. As it stands your answer is purely subjective and could be improved by adding references. Take the tour or have a look at the help center to find out more about good answers.
    – Helmar
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 10:38
  • Mentioning that this can be found in any good dictionary is not specific enough? It's still the only answer.
    – Michael
    Commented May 19, 2017 at 10:28

The "to" belongs to the infinitive following it. This is why you cannot use "used to" with can or shall...

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