The Grammarphobia Blog

What the rooster useter do

Q:I run a class for language-obsessed retirees in Australia, where “useter” is commonly used for “used to,” as in “I useter drive a Volvo” or “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” May I ask you to write about this usage?

A: The word spelled “useter” represents the way some people pronounce “used to”—same meaning, different spelling. And it’s found in the US and Britain as well as in Australia.

So a sentence spoken as “I useter drive a Volvo” would be written more formally as “I used to drive a Volvo.” And the question “Didn’t you useter drive a Volvo?” would be written as “Didn’t you use to drive a Volvo?”

The spelling “useter” arose as a variant “representing a colloquial pronunciation of used to,” the Oxford English Dictionary explains. When “useter” appears in the dictionary’s written examples, it’s always an attempt to imitate the spoken usage.

The OED cites published examples of “useter” in both American and British English dating from the mid-19th century. In its earliest appearance, the word is spelled “use ter”:

“You don’t know no more ’bout goin’ to sea than I knows about them ’Gyptian lookin’ books that you use ter study when you went to College.” (From an 1846 novel, The Prince and the Queen, by the American writer and editor Justin Jones, who wrote fiction under the pseudonym Harry Hazel.)

The dictionary’s most recent example is from a British newspaper, the Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough), dated June 14, 2003: “They useter ’ave a big Rockweiler … but it got nicked.”

Among the OED’s examples is one spelled “useta,” representing what’s probably the more common American pronunciation:

“I useta beg her to keep some of that stuff in a safe-deposit box.” From The Burglar in the Closet (1980), by the American mystery writer Lawrence Block.

As we said in a recent post, this sense of “use” in the phrase “used to” refers to an action in the past that was once habitual but has been discontinued.

We won’t say any more about the etymology of “use,” since we covered it in that post. But we’ll expand a bit on the sense of “use” as a verb that roughly means “customarily do.”

This sense of “use” has died out in the present tense. A 17th-century speaker might have said, “John uses to drink ale,” but today the present-tense version would be “John usually [or customarily or habitually] drinks ale.”

In modern English, this sense of “use” is found only in the past tense: “used” or “did use.” We now say, for example, “Normally he drives a Ford, but he used [or did use] to drive a Volvo.”

Since the “d” in “used to” is not pronounced, the phrase sounds like “use to,” and people sometimes write it that way in error.

As the OED explains, the “d” and the “t” sounds in “used to” became “assimilated” in both British and American English, and “attempts to represent these pronunciations in writing gave rise to use to as a spelling for used to.” The “use to” spelling “occurs from at least the late 17th cent. onwards,” the dictionary says.

Another irregularity is that people commonly—but redundantly—use “did” and “used” together, as in “Did he used to drive a Volvo?” But with “did,” the normal form is “use” (“Did he use to drive a Volvo?”).

As Pat explains in her book Woe Is I, “did use” is another way of saying “used,” just as “did like” is another way of saying “liked.” And just as we don’t write “did liked,” we shouldn’t write “did used.” She gives this usage advice:

  • If there’s no “did,” choose “used to” (as in “Isaac used to play golf”).
  • If there’s a “did,” choose “use to” (as in “Isaac did use to play golf” … “Did Isaac use to play squash?” … “No, he didn’t use to play squash”).

As you’ve noticed, questions and negative statements like those last two are sometimes constructed differently.

Americans, and many speakers of British English, typically say, “Did he use to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he didn’t use to drive a Volvo.”

But sometimes, sentences like these get a different treatment in British English: “Used he to drive a Volvo?” …”Usedn’t he to drive a Volvo?” … “No, he used not [or usedn’t] to drive a Volvo.”

What’s happening in those negative examples? The OED says that “not” sometimes directly modifies “use,” resulting in “the full form used not… although usedn’t occasionally occurs as well as usen’t.”

In closing, we’ll share a few lines from Irving Berlin’s 1914 song “I Want to Go Back to Michigan (Down on the Farm)”:

I miss the rooster,
The one that useter
Wake me up at four A.M.

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