Author Topic: How to construct negative “used to” sentences  (Read 10360 times)

Joe Carillo

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How to construct negative “used to” sentences
« on: March 09, 2022, 10:39:46 PM »
In my column last week on how the English double possessive works, I clarified the baffling usage of what linguists call the “double genitive.” This time I’d like to make a similar alert on another tricky English usage—the construction of the “used to + verb” form in negative and interrogative statements.

As we know, the “used to + verb” form denotes a past condition or habitual practice, as in “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 negative and interrogative statements, however, doubts persist about the suitability of the “used to + verb” form to take the auxiliary verb “did.” Indeed, how should the negative form be rendered in the two “used to” sentences presented earlier? In 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 in 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. Thus, the American English prescription for negative “used to” statements is “She didn’t use to be my trusted associate,” and for questions, “Did she use to be my trusted associate?”

This simple prescription looks and sounds odd because it contravenes the supposedly past-tense character of “used to,” but it is 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?”

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.” They consider ungrammatical 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 prescriptions, these sentences are definitely clearer and neither look and sound odd.

We can’t completely turn a blind eye to these contrarian prescriptions, but American English being the Philippine English standard, we need to be consistent by observing the American English idiom here no matter how strange-sounding it sounds—drop the “d” from the verb in “used to” every time this form works with the auxiliary verb “did” in negative and interrogative statements.

This essay, 2089th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the March 10, 2022 Internet edition of The Manila Times, ©2022 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this essay in my column in The Manila Times:
How to construct negative “used to” sentences

(Next week: Forming negative sentences correctly)        March 17, 2022

Visit Jose Carillo’s English Forum, http://josecarilloforum.com. You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter and e-mail me at j8carillo@yahoo.com.
« Last Edit: March 10, 2022, 08:40:54 AM by Joe Carillo »