The Grammarphobia Blog

Is this “use” abuse?

Q: Whence the term “used to”? If you think about it, a sentence like “I used to shoot cans out there” doesn’t make much sense. And the question form (“What did you use to shoot out there, cans or duck?”) looks and sounds even stranger.

A: Once upon a time, a meaning of the verb “use” was to be accustomed, or to be in the habit, or to usually do. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage gives this example from Samuel Pepys in 1667: “I did this night give the waterman who uses to carry me 10 shillings.”

This meaning of “use” has died out in the present tense. We wouldn’t say “he uses to carry me”; we’d say “he usually carries me.”

But it’s alive and well in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally I shoot cans, but I used to shoot duck.” Or: “Well, I did use to shoot cans. What did you use to shoot?”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, it sounds like “use to.” In speech we don’t notice the difference, but the error shows up in writing. Many people mistakenly write “use to” when they ought to write “used to” or “did use to.”

Another error is using both “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to shoot duck?” With “did,” the correct form is “use” (“Did he use to shoot duck?”). This is because “did use” means “used,” just as “did walk” means “walked.” So “did used” makes no more sense than “did walked.”

The British treat “use” differently than we do in questions and negative statements. We say “did” in the United States: “Did he use to shoot cans?” Or: “He didn’t use to shoot cans.” But the British say “used” instead: “Used he to shoot cans?” Or: “He usedn’t [or “used not”] to shoot cans.”

Thanks for your question, and I hope this will be of use to you.

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