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I am hearing the use of this odd-sounding construction more and more frequently as of late. For example:

I didn't used to smoke.

I didn't used to work for McDonald's.

I was trying to think of alternatives to this phrase but all I could think of was previously:

I didn't previously smoke.

I didn't previously work for McDonald's.

That said, to me, the use of "previously" instead implies an event took place that changed the fact in the statement. In other words, to me, "previously" is more similar to "prior to (something)," whereas "didn't used to" refers to the general past.

Are there any better alternatives to that of which I have already thought?

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The construction is 'use to' [+ infinitive], which makes 'use to' an auxiliary. Hence 'I used to smoke' or 'I didn't use to smoke', although 'I didn't used to smoke' seems to be acceptable. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 2 at 23:18

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I see nothing wrong or odd with the following sentence and its meaning.

I didn't use to smoke

This statement means I was a non-smoker in the past. It implies that today I smoke on a regular basis. When we want to contrast a repeated action in the past that is no longer true in the present, used to, is a perfectly valid construction. Compare the same sentence in the affirmative

I used to smoke

This means I was a smoker in the past, but now I do not smoke. To make the past simple negative form in English use did + infinitive verb

Examples:

I didn't smoked I didn't smoke

He didn't played football. He didn't play football

We didn't went to the match We didn't go to the match

Likewise with used to, the negative form in the past simple is didn't + use to

The difference between didn't use to and didn't used to is not noticeable in speech but this error (and it is an error, I don't care how many instances Google says otherwise) is replicated in writing.

The story is a little different with the second example (corrected)

I didn't use to work for McDonald's.

Here the speaker is saying he didn't work for an extended period for or in a McDonald's restaurant. However, this implies he is working for that company today.

A: Bla, bla, bla... What are you doing now?
B: I work in McDonald's
A: Really? But didn't you leave college with a Bachelor's degree in X?
B: Yeah... Listen I know it sounds weird, I didn't use to work in McDonald's but now I do. It's a long story.

Macmillian Dictionary says:

Used to only exists as a past tense. Questions and negatives are usually formed with 'did' + use to (with no 'd'): Did you use to work here? ♦ We didn't use to earn much. The spelling 'did used to' is sometimes used, but many people think that this is wrong. In formal English, negatives are often formed with used not to:
They used not to allow shops to be open on Sundays. The short forms usen't to and usedn't to are sometimes used, but they sound rather formal and old-fashioned. used for saying what was true or what happened regularly in the past, especially when you want to emphasize that this is not true or does not happen now

  • I used to enjoy gardening, but I don't have time for it now.
  • They always used to ring me and say what they were doing.
  • Where did you use to live before you moved here?
  • I didn't use to like him, but now we're good friends.
  • Customers didn't use to want to shop from home.

If you want to substitute "didn't use to" say never.

I never smoked but now I do

I never worked for McDonald's but now I do

Alternatively, as suggested by @Peter Shor in the comments below

I never used to smoke

I never used to work for McDonald's

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"I didn't use(d) to" usually means "At one time I did not do this, but I do now." So "I never" is not an acceptable replacement. However, "I never used to" works fine. –  Peter Shor Feb 3 at 2:25
    
@PeterShor rectified, thanks. –  Mari-Lou A Feb 3 at 2:31

Didn't used to is the correct negative form of used to, but only in spoken English.
That's why you keep hearing it; it's normal, correct, grammatical, and very very common.

The problem arises when you try to write it. This is of course not part of English grammar, but rather of English orthography, a Rube Goldberg construction with as much grace and utility as a scrap heap. Which is what it is -- spellings have been piled higher and deeper over the centuries.

Herewith what I said about this particular problem in the context of another question:

My favorite example of where writing gets in the way of language is how to write the negative of used to /'justu/ as in I used to like it /ay'yustu'laykət/. The problem is whether the negative should be written

  • I didn't used to like it.
    or
  • I didn't use to like it.

To me, at least, both spellings look wrong, so I tend to avoid writing it, though it's certainly part of the language.

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Though you say you 'avoid writing it', do you say it? If not what would you use instead? –  WS2 Feb 3 at 12:23
    
I say it all the time. As I said above, it's the correct negative form of the used to construction (which you could call the "past evanescent tense" if you believe in the future and past perfect tenses). Everybody says it, all the time, and I'm no different. –  John Lawler Feb 4 at 3:08

Though I may well use it myself, as do other dialect speakers, I do not think 'didn't used to' is correct English.

I believe the correct form to be: 'I used not to drink coffee'.

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And who is the phantom downvoter? –  WS2 Feb 2 at 23:00
1  
I'm surprised that Collins licenses 'didn't used to', though I consider 'didn't use to' fine. Though phantom downvoters annoy me more. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 2 at 23:24
    
"I used not to" used to be used. But it's becoming rare in American English now. The downvoter may be an American who thinks "I used not to" sounds wrong. –  Peter Shor Feb 3 at 2:29
    
@EdwinAshworth How about what they say in Norfolk, 'I dint ortera dunnet', meaning 'I didn't ought to have done it'? Are you 'fine' with that too? Wouldn't you agree that 'I ought not to have done it' is the correct form? –  WS2 Feb 3 at 7:53
    
@Peter They'll be refusing to pay us taxes next. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 3 at 7:54

The closest alternatives are probably I didn't always and I used to not.

I didn't always smoke

I didn't always work for McDonald's

and

I used to not smoke

I used to not work for McDonald's

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I used not to do this is better than I used to not do it. –  TimLymington Feb 2 at 23:11
    
The idiom is "used to," and so "used to not" sounds more natural to me. Perhaps things are different across the pond. –  Kevin Feb 2 at 23:40
    
@Kevin But it involves a split infinitive. 'I used not to go there', is definitely the correct English, though I will admit not always to using it myself. –  WS2 Feb 3 at 7:49
    
@Kevin: I don't think it's an idiom, just a tense marker. And I used to not smoke often, but that is not the same as I used not to smoke (at all). –  TimLymington Feb 3 at 13:01

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