A TRICKY English usage that I’ve been repeatedly asked about over the years is the form “used to + verb,” which means a past condition or habitual practice, as in the sentences, “She used to be my trusted associate” and “The couple used to swim in the community pool.” In the first sentence, “used to” conveys the idea of a condition that’s no longer true; in the second, “used to” conveys the idea of an old practice that’s no longer being done. In both cases, we’re not in any danger of tripping in our grammar because “used to” is clearly functioning as it should—as an auxiliary verb affirming the sense of a state of affairs or past action that no longer subsists.
When “used to” occurs in negative and interrogative statements, however, questions about its grammatical validity arise because both forms need to take the auxiliary verb “did.” Indeed, how should the two “used to” sentences presented earlier be rendered in negative form? For the first, do we say, “She didn’t used to be my trusted associate” (“used” with the “d”) or “She didn’t use to be my trusted associate” (“use” with no “d”)? And for the second, do we say, “The couple didn’t used to swim in the community pool” or “The couple didn’t use to swim in the community pool”?
Then again, how do we put the two “used to” sentences in question form? For the first, do we say, “Did she used to be my trusted associate?” or “Did she use to be my trusted associate?” And for the second, do we say, “Did the couple used to swim in the community pool?” or “Did the couple use to swim in the community pool?”?
The prescription in American English is straightforward—drop the “d” from the verb in “used to” every time this form works with the auxiliary verb “did” in negative and interrogative statements. The correct usage for negative “used to” statements is therefore this: “She didn’t use to be my trusted associate.” For questions, this: “Did she use to be my trusted associate?”
This is actually an odd and puzzling prescription because it actually contravenes the supposedly past-tense character of “used to,” but the good thing is that it’s consistent with the standard grammar rule that auxiliary verbs, not main verbs, should take the tense, as in “We didn’t wish to be listed” rather than “We didn’t wished to be listed,” and “Did she want to stay in Paris?” rather than “Did she wanted to stay in Paris?”
Still, this American English prescription is frowned upon by some grammarians. They argue that since “used to” exists only in the past tense, its negative and interrogative forms can’t possibly take the auxiliary verb “do.” To them, therefore, both the negative constructions “She didn’t used to be my trusted associate” and “She didn’t use to be my trusted associate” are unacceptable, and both the interrogative constructions “Did she used to be my trusted associate?” and “Did she use to be my trusted associate?” are likewise unacceptable.
For negative “used to” constructions, these grammar contrarians prescribe this form instead: “She used not to be my trusted associate.” For interrogative “used to” constructions, they recommend this form: “Was the couple not used to swimming in the community pool?” Take note that these alternative constructions take pains to retain the “d” in “used to” and avoid using the contraction “didn’t,” yielding sentences that don’t have the odd look and sound of their American English counterparts.
I’m tempted to say that we need not turn a blind eye to these contrarian prescriptions, which actually are sensible. To be on the safe side though, we need to follow the American English prescriptions because, well, American English is the de facto Philippine standard.
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