Last week I did an English lesson on “gaps in knowledge” – reviewing grammatical errors that many of the students have been making in their writing and in their oral exam the previous week. One point that I really wanted to emphasize was the use of ‘used to’. I’ve noticed not only my English students but other English-speaking Mozambicans in my office and elsewhere who love to use this form but always use it incorrectly, but I had never been able to pinpoint the pattern of their error.
I spent some time explaining how ‘used to’ refers to something done regularly, over a period of time in the past but no longer. I drew diagrams showing, for example, a person who smoked in the 80s but doesn’t now in 2009. I demonstrated how I studied French in high school and college but no longer do. I gave lots of examples. They seemed to be catching on.
Then a student said, “What about when to use ‘use to’?” I pointed to the board and said, “That’s what we’ve just been discussing.” He said, “No, not ‘use-ed to’ but ‘use to’, the present form.” To clarify that I understood him correctly, I wrote ‘use to’ on the board and asked him if that’s what he was saying. He said, “Yes, to refer to what I do habitually now.” He gave an example: “If I smoke now, I use to smoke.” I crossed out ‘use to’ on the board and said, “No, this is not correct in English. There is no present form of ‘used to’. ‘Used to’ is a specific phrase that only refers to the past.” Most of the class looked at me as if I were lying to them. The student who asked about the present form insisted, “But my teacher in secondary school explained that ‘used to’ refers to something you did habitually in the past and ‘use to’ refers to something you do habitually now.” It was one of those moments that occurs frequently in Mozambique where I want to scream, not at the person speaking to me because he cannot be blamed for his ignorance, but at those out there teaching incorrectly. I also wanted to laugh. It was hard not to, as this student was so serious and so insistent about using the present tense of ‘used to’.
I still don’t think anyone believed me that ‘use to’ doesn’t exist. It was too much radical information for them to take in after years of being taught one way, a bit like first learning that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. In Mozambique, I use to challenge commonly held beliefs.