Addendum on Used To vs. Use To

By Maeve Maddox

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It sometimes happens that I write a post that I think is beautifully focused on one point of usage, and then I receive a slew of emails faulting me for misrepresenting the topic.

That’s what happened with a post on the modal use of used and use to express habitual action in the past.

When an article receives this kind of response, I have to assume that my intended explanation wasn’t as clear as I thought it was. The post was based on the following question from a reader:

Which is correct – 
He USED to go to the game on Friday.
He USE to go to the game on Friday.

All I intended to point out in my answer was that used is the correct choice for the examples given, but that use is correct when it follows the negative didn’t.

What I said was,

When the statement is positive, as in the reader’s example, the expression is used to. In negative statements, the expression is use to. For example, “He didn’t use to go to the game on Friday.”

One reader correctly commented, “The distinction is not really about positivity/negativity,” and offered the following sentences as evidence:

He did use to go to the game on Friday.
He never used to go to the game on Friday.

The first example is correct as a contradictory statement. For example:

Person A: He didn’t use to go to the game on Friday.
Person B: He did use to go to the game on Friday.

The second example contains the negative adverb never, but used is still the correct form. Any adverb, negative or otherwise, may modify the modal used:

never used to go
always used to go
rarely used to go

I apologize for my sweeping statements about positive and negative.

Another reader asks,

Can we say “usedn’t to” instead of “didn’t use to”?

It depends.

If you live in the UK or some other place where this expression is common, go ahead and use it. If you say it to an American speaker, you’re likely to get a puzzled look.

For British speakers, here’s what it says about the different forms in The Penguin Writer’s Manual:

The strictly correct negative form of used to is used not to, which can be shortened to usedn’t to: “You used not to (or usedn’t to) mind if we came in a little late.” This often sounds rather formal, so that did not use to or didn’t use to (but not didn’t used to) are generally acceptable in informal speech or writing. Likewise, the traditionally correct negative question form used you not to..? or usedn’t you to..? is often replaced, more informally, by didn’t you use to..? If neither of these options seems acceptable, you used to…, didn’t you? can be used.

Another reader demands,

What is your authority for this?

My usual authorities are the OED, Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, and The Chicago Manual of Style. This time, however, I relied for the most part on British and American grammar sites that target English learners.

BBC: When talking about things that we did in the past but don’t do now we can use the expression used to. The negative form, to talk about things which we didn’t do in the past but do now, is didn’t use to

Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries: Except in negatives and questions, the correct form is used to: “I used to go there every Saturday.” To form questions, use did: Did she use to have long hair? The negative form is usually didn’t use to, but in British English this is quite informal and is not usually used in writing.

English Stack Exchange: Except in negatives and questions, the correct form is used to: “we used to go to the movies all the time” (not we use to go to the movies). However, in negatives and questions using the auxiliary verb do, the correct form is use to: “I didn’t use to like mushrooms” (not I didn’t used to like mushrooms).

Finally, several readers wondered about the pronunciation of used to and use to.

You’ll find a thorough treatment of British and American pronunciation of these forms at the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries site.

Thanks to all of you for your comments.

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4 Responses to “Addendum on Used To vs. Use To”

  • Precise Edit

    The first verb indicates the tense, and the second verb is in the bare infinitive.
    Did swim = swam
    Did run = ran
    Did walk = walked
    Did use = used

    I used to eat dirt = I did use to eat dirt.

    I never used to burp in public = I did not use to burp in public = I didn’t use to burp in public.

    Does that sound about right, Maeve?

  • Greg

    Merry Christmas, Maeve!

  • Moriel Schottlender

    So, I’m an ESL speaker, so I am not sure about this, but from what I’ve learned in English grammar in school, this originally sounded like a fairly straight-forward reason to use “use to” vs “used to” in sentences that have the variation of “do”.

    We’ve learned that any verb that follows the “did/do/does/don’t/etc” form, is never past tense. For instance, “I went to school.” vs. “Did I *go* to school?” or “He ran 2 miles” vs “He does *run* 2 miles” etc. I thought that was the reason for using “use to” in “he did use to go to the game”.

    Is that not the case to say it is because of the variation of “do” in there?

  • Elisabeth Edwards

    Hi Maeve
    For some reason the distinction between ‘use to’ and ‘used to’ has got very complicated, when it’s very simple and follows the rules for regular verbs (although because of its meaning, this verb can only be used in past tenses, unlike most verbs). The first, ‘use to’, is the bare infinitive (the infinitive, e.g. ‘to play’, without the preceding ‘to’); the second, ‘used to’, is the past simple. To form the negative past simple in English we use an auxiliary/’helping’ verb + the bare infinitive. The auxiliary verb is then the ‘active’ verb and the bare infinitive doesn’t change. For example, ‘I played’ (past simple of ‘to play’) becomes ‘I didn’t play’ (auxiliary verb ‘to do’ in first person negative of past simple = ‘I did not/didn’t’). The same applies to forming a question: ‘Did you play?’; ‘Did you use to have a dog?’

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