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Sunday, April 3, 2011

How we use to use use

The verb "use" used to be, well, used (maybe I should start this post over...).

Nowadays I can't say "I use to go to ballet classes 4 times a week", meaning "I do this habitually", although I could have said that from about 1400-1700 (not that I was dancing back then, though some mornings it feels like it). (The title of this post is not a mistake, but me being intentionally -- all right, you can say pretentiously -- archaic.)
This sense of "use" now occurs only in the past tense: "I used to go to ballet classes". In speech, this sounds exactly like the noun "use" plus "to" (YOOSS too). From this arise two problems:
1) Do not write "I use to", even though it sounds like that. Remember, "used" is in the past tense.
2) When you put this in the negative, you DON'T write "used". "I didn't use to go to ballet classes" is correct. It looks weird, but that's the correct version. Just as you wouldn't say "I didn't wanted to go", you can't say "I didn't used to go". "Didn't used to" is an extraordinarily common mistake, but it is a mistake nonetheless.

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About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.