I Don’t Use Use To but I Used To

The confusion over used to versus use to is largely due to the casual way we talk to each other. Unless the speaker makes a determined effort to say “used [pause] to,” the d at the end of “used” gets swallowed by the stronger t sound. Usually, when someone says something like “I used to read more,” anything from “use to” to “yoosta” is what we hear.

So is use to ever grammatical? Many authorities, including most of those found online, say use to is correct only in one special case: when it is preceded by did, did not, or didn’t, as in, Did you use to live nearby? or He didn’t use to be a writer.

In all other cases—i.e., most of the time—used to is the only option.

You’d think that would settle it. However, one finds dissension among eminent twentieth-century English scholars. In The Careful Writer (1983), Theodore M. Bernstein verifies did use to and didn’t use to, but adds that “employing use in this sense, though common in conversation, lacks grace in writing.” Roy H. Copperud concurs: in A Dictionary of Usage and Style (1967), he writes that with did and didn’t, “the form is use to, though such constructions are clumsy and best avoided.” But Bryan A. Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998), takes issue: “It shouldn’t be written didn’t use to.” And John B. Bremner, in Words on Words (1980), states flatly, “Some otherwise respectable authorities notwithstanding, the use of use to instead of used to is barbaric.”

The best advice is to rewrite. Instead of Did you use to live nearby? one might say Did you ever live nearby? Instead of He didn’t use to be a writer, how about He never used to be a writer. Such easy fixes are painless ways around a prickly mini-controversy.


Pop Quiz

Start the New Year right by fixing any of the following sentences that need it.

1. There are four times as many rocks than there were before.

2. A dollar or two are all it costs.

3. This phenomena is all too common.

4. He is one of those people who like opera.

5. It had already began when me and Juan arrived.

6. The decision is theirs’ to make.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. There are four times as many rocks as there were before.

2. A dollar or two is all it costs.

3. This phenomenon is all too common.

4. He is one of those people who like opera. CORRECT

5. It had already begun when Juan and I arrived.

6. The decision is theirs to make.

Posted on Tuesday, January 7, 2014, at 9:25 pm

16 Comments on I Don’t Use Use To but I Used To

16 responses to “I Don’t Use Use To but I Used To”

  1. Fred B. says:

    I love it!

    I have often noticed that many speakers of English as a second or third language have a difficult time with “I didn’t go” and intuitively think it should be “I didn’t went.” After all, it is in the past. I didn’t use to go must be correct, but I agree it is awkward.

    I have a different question. We say “I didn’t go.” If we add in used to, it is almost like an adverb modifying the verb to go and suggesting that we might go now or in the future.

    • Jane says:

      Using used to with “I didn’t go” is another good example of when it may be better to rewrite in order to be clear about one’s meaning. In Britain one often hears “I used not to go,” or its contraction usedn’t or usen’t. Instead of seeing it as an adverb phrase, we see it as an idiomatic verb form.

  2. Georgia F. says:

    Loved the lesson! I avoid using “use” – “used” as much as possible in any given writing exercise. Now I may “just” start using “used” in sentences again.

  3. Kevin F. says:

    now it’s getting plain silly

    • Jane says:

      What is “it” that’s getting plain silly? The topic of the newsletter? We didn’t think this subject was silly at all, nor did most other readers, judging from their reactions. Perhaps you are just not as nerdy as some of us. What are some topics you would like to see covered?

  4. Ellen G. says:

    I am sorry Jane, but I totally disagree with you on this one. “Use to” does not compute in any language, and especially the way it is expressed in your article.

    • Jane says:

      What is it you “totally disagree” with? We presented a wide range of views on a topic that many linguists have written about over the years. It’s like saying you disagree with the weather outside. Can you provide any references to back up your disagreement?

  5. kiara says:

    my question –
    she didn’t wanted to go there .
    she didn’t want to go there .

    which one is correct .

  6. Den says:

    I don’t agree with #4 of the pop quiz. “He is one of those people who likes opera.” Reason is; he is one out of all those people (just one) out of them all makes the verb singular. It’s like saying one of my teeth are (wrong).

  7. Ana Rodriguez says:

    I am asking my question here because I did not find a better place. My question is about the word ‘synergize.’ Is it a real verb? Both My American Oxford and Merriam-Webster’s dictionary do not list it, but Merriam-Webster’s online does http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/synergize
    May I have your comments on this? Thank you!

  8. Luis Villalobos says:

    Dear Jane,
    I am a BA in ELT teacher at the Autonomous University of Aguascalientes in Mexico. I am currently teaching Discourse Analysis to my BA in ELT students in the 5th semester. One of the DA topics is Tense and Aspect. After having introduced Tense and Aspect to my students, I asked them to do a Tense Consistency exercise which I downloaded from the Purdue OWL exercises (https://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/2/22/49/). Unfortunately, I had some problems when I checked the answers with my students since they did not accept some of the corrected answers given in the answer sheet. For example, item 3 “Thousands of people will see the art exhibit by the time it closes”(S). They argued that “will see” is incorrect as the correct version should be ”Thousands of people will have seen the art exhibit by the time it closes”. In my opinion, both future simple and future perfect sound correct. The same thing happened with item 7 “The moderator asks for questions as soon as the speaker has finished” (S). My students definitely rejected “has finished” at the end of the sentence arguing that it must be “finishes”because “has finished” does not make sense to them (I think this is because they translated the sentence into Spanish). The correction suggested in the answer sheet for item 12 was also rejected by the students. They claimed that the correct version should be “The doctor suggested bed rest for the patient, who suffers from a bad cold” because according to their point of view the patient is still sick, instead of “The doctor suggested bed rest for the patient, who was suffering from a bad cold”, which implies that the patient started recovering once he saw the doctor.

    I would really appreciate if you help me with further explanations regarding the items before mentioned. I must say that one of my teaching objectives is to raise awareness in my students regarding Tense and Aspect as they will be graduating as English teachers in the near future.

    Luis Villalobos

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