Author Topic: Pitfalls in constructing negative “used to” sentences  (Read 9852 times)

Joe Carillo

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Pitfalls in constructing negative “used to” sentences
« on: September 05, 2019, 07:17:17 AM »
One tricky English usage that we must be alert about is the “used to + verb” form, which denotes 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, “used to” conveys the idea of a condition that’s no longer true; in the second, it conveys the idea of an old practice that’s no longer being done. In neither case are we in any danger of messing up 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.

In negative and interrogative statements, however, the need of the “used to + verb” form to take the auxiliary verb “did” raises doubts about the validity of the usage. Indeed, how should we render in negative form the two “used to” sentences presented earlier? For the first negative statement, 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?”?

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THE AMERICAN ENGLISH PRESCRIPTION FOR “USED TO” USAGE

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. Thus, the correct usage for negative “used to” statements is this: “She didn’t use to be my trusted associate,” and for questions, this: “Did she use to be my trusted associate?”

This simple prescription does look and sound odd because it contravenes the supposedly past-tense character of “used to,” but it has the virtue of being consistent with the standard English 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?”

Some grammarians frown on this American English prescription, arguing that since “used to” exists only in the past tense, its negative and interrogative forms can’t possibly take the auxiliary verb “do.” They find unacceptable both the negative constructions “She didn’t used to be my trusted associate” and “She didn’t use to be my trusted associate” as well as the interrogative constructions “Did she used to be my trusted associate?” and “Did she use to be my trusted associate?”

For negative “used to” constructions, these grammar contrarians prescribe the form “She used not to be my trusted associate” instead; and for interrogative “used to” constructions, they recommend the form “Was the couple not used to swimming in the community pool?” Note that these alternative constructions retain the “d” in “used to” and avoid the contraction “didn’t.” Unlike their American English counterparts, these sentences clearly don’t look and sound odd.

We need not turn a blind eye to these contrarian prescriptions, but American English being the Philippine English standard, we need to follow the American English prescriptions for consistency—drop the “d” from the verb in “used to” every time this form works with the auxiliary verb “did” in negative and interrogative statements.

(Next: The six ways that English evokes the future)     September 12, 2019

This essay, 1,159th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the September 5, 2019 print edition of The Manila Times, © 2019 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.