A bit of a throwback, this month, to a more purely speculative language-based article (I’m aware that recently my reflections on my teaching have rather taken precedence). I speak of ‘used to’, and a little experiment to find its most commonly-used negative.
First, some terms. ‘[Subject] + used to’ is most simply defined as a grammatical structure which is typically employed to describe a past activity or state, often one which is no longer indulged or no longer the case. It is usually taught at around B1 level, and its shortcut to meaning and diverse activity possibilities (pronunciation, games) make it a favourite with teachers.
When presenting this language and deploying all your best guff, the conscientious EFL teacher should also elicit its form in affirmative, negative and interrogative moods. The affirmative is above, and apart from the archaic or non-standard (student) practice of occasionally dropping the ‘d’, it is uncontroversial. But the negative and interrogative provoke more debate. (As an aside, speaking of ‘correct’ and ‘errors’ as I am about to do is inaccurate, but denote more common and less common conventional usage.)
- ‘I didn’t used to…’
- ‘I didn’t use to…’’
- ‘Did she used to…’
- ‘Did she use to…’
Before I became an English teacher, I would have sworn blind that versions one and three were ‘correct’, and two and four contained the error. As with all grammatical and orthographic conventions, I would have ‘known’ this instinctively, having mentally recorded and imprinted as ‘for use’ the more common one among the assorted books, articles and whatever I had ever read. (Incidentally, this practice goes some way to helping my spelling, with which I have mercifully few problems, though runs into trouble when non-standard forms become common!) But English language coursebooks have the opposite – versions two and four are correct.
We can also examine the grammar among its peers. It is common – nay, obligatory – in the past simple, for example, for the main verb not to be conjugated if its auxiliary is – as in the example ‘he didn’t go’, not ‘he didn’t went’. This may explain why the coursebooks stipulate not to conjugate the ‘use’ part when featured with a mandatory conjugated auxiliary in the interrogative and negative.
But hang on. That presupposes that ‘used’ in ‘used to’ is the past simple or the past participle of a verb, whereas some may argue that it is in fact a lexical chunk, or even that most modish of terms, ‘lexico-grammar’. Those conjugating the ‘use’ in the negative and interrogative are making a conscious decision about the part of speech, which they may or may not have the right to do.
So to Google Ngram Viewer – a tool that allows us to see the relative rates of use of a variable. As opposed to a corpus, the tool has limitations – it is only written language, and more specifically only books. We miss a number of genres in which the variable could be seen, and which could dramatically change our data. But nonetheless we can still give and see a part of a response to a hypothesis, which is that in the negative, ‘use’ is significantly spelled with an additional ‘d’.
Variable and incidence of use in all books on system, year 2000. Google Ngram Viewer, 25th May 2018
Did not used to = 0.0000055%
Did not use to = 0.0000020%
We can see from these results that the first variable is more common in recent history than the second. However, while rates for the first shot up in the late C20th, rates for the second decreased significantly after a high around 1820. It would seem, that the coursebook writers are either relying on older forms in perhaps older grammar books, or failing to take account of modern usage.
Obviously, however, such investigation has considerable limitations, and cannot really warrant that conclusion for many reasons. However, it is sometimes interesting to see what data can support a hypothesis about a particular variable. As ever, more research is needed – but whether it is in reality a cool enough thing to prompt someone to fund someone to investigate – well, I didn’t used to be so naive…