• The pitfalls in constructing negative “used to” sentences

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    Every now and then, I post on Facebook and Twitter little quick quizzes on grammar and usage. I then provide a link to the correct answer in Jose Carillo’s English Forum, which has already built up a sizeable online learning resource on English since it started in May of 2009.

    Surprisingly, this quick quiz that I posted last March 29 have registered 116 responses on Facebook and 52 on Twitter, or over three times the average: “Which negative ‘used to’ construction is correct? ‘They (didn’t used to be, didn’t use to be, used not to be) very close friends.’”

    This, I think, indicates a need for this usage to be clarified even more widely among English learners and teachers alike, so I’m presenting below an abridgment of the column that I wrote explaining it way back in 2005 (http://tinyurl.com/pny3sok):

    Most of us feel comfortable with using the form “used to + verb” for a past condition or habitual practice, as in these sentences: “They used to be very close friends.” “She used to jog early in the morning.” In the first, “used to” conveys the idea of a past activity or condition that’s no longer true; in the second, “used to” conveys the idea of an old habit that had already stopped. In both cases, we’re hardly in any danger of stumbling in our grammar because “used to” is clearly functioning as it should—as an auxiliary verb affirming the sense of a past action or state of affairs that had already ceased.

    But using “used to” in negative and interrogative statements, which both require the form to take the auxiliary verb “did,” raises serious questions about its grammatical validity. Indeed, how should the two “used to” sentences above be rendered in the negative? For the first, do we say, “They didn’t used to be very close friends” (“used” with the “d”) or “They didn’t use to be very close friends” (“use” without the “d”)? And for the second, do we say, “She didn’t used to jog early in the morning” or “She didn’t use to jog early in the morning”?

    Then again, how do we put the two “used to” sentences in question form? For the first, do we say, “Did they used to be very close friends?” or “Did they use to be very close friends?” And for the second, do we say, “Did she used to jog early in the morning?” or “Did she use to jog early in the morning?”

    The American English prescription is straightforward: take out the “d” from the verb in “used to” when this form works with the auxiliary verb “did” in negative and interrogative statements. Thus, the correct usage for negative “used to” statements is “They didn’t use to be very close friends,” and for questions, “Did they use to be very close friends?”

    Some grammarians frown on the American English prescription, though. 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 “They didn’t used to be very close friends” and “They didn’t use to be very close friends” are unacceptable, and neither are the interrogative constructions “Did she used to jog early in the morning?” and “Did she use to jog early in the morning?”

    Instead, for negative “used to” constructions, these grammarians prescribe “They used not to be very close friends,” and for interrogative “used to” constructions, either “Used she not to jog early in the morning?” or “Was she not used to jogging early in the morning?”

    American English is the Philippine standard, of course, so we have to follow its prescription for “used to”—but we really shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the virtues of the contrary prescription.

    Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum at http://josecarilloforum.com. Find me on Facebook. Follow me at Twitter.com @J8Carillo.

    j8carillo@yahoo.com

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    1 Comment

    1. Par 2, sentence 1 of the column above inadvertently made this subject-verb disagreement: “Surprisingly, this quick quiz that I posted last March 29 have registered 116 responses on Facebook and 52 on Twitter…” Since the true subject is the singular “quick quiz,” not the singular but notionally plural “I” in the subordinate clause “that I posted,” the verb should take the singular verbal auxiliary “has” instead of the plural “have.” The author apologizes for this proofreading oversight.

      To increase your level of comfort with this aspect of English grammar, check out the Forum for “The subject-verb agreement rule isn’t really a fail-safe prescription (http://tinyurl.com/lfj9h92) and “Steeling ourselves against common subject-verb disagreement pitfalls” (http://tinyurl.com/n5xm5cp).