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What is the negative form of "I used to be"? I often hear "I didn't used to be" but that sounds awfully wrong in my ears.

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This is not a language or grammar problem. This has to do with spelling exclusively. Every English speaker knows that the negative of /'yustə/ is /'dɪdən yustə/. That's what's said millions of times daily by English speakers. How you want to spell /'dɪdən yustə/ is what causes all the problems. Seems I posted on this problem some years ago in another forum, using ASCII IPA with /@/ instead of /ə/, etc. –  John Lawler Oct 31 '13 at 19:32

5 Answers 5

The best way* to negate the construction, used to be, is to simply use never and replace the infinitive form of the verb with its past tense. Thus:

  • I used to be a chain-smoker / I never was a chain-smoker
  • This place used to be a library / This place was never a library
  • He used to be such a decent plumber / He never was a decent plumber

It is also correct in some situations to say never used to:

  • We used to go there / We never used to go there

In this case, never used to usually serves as an emphatic negation of something previously stated.

Your example, I used to be, is best negated as I never was/I was never, although, I never used to be and I didn't use to be (grates on my ears!) are also options, depending on the context. For instance:

  • I never used to be like this!
  • Things never used to be this way.

Also consider the following:

  • You used to be such a good friend
  • I never was a good friend.
  • No, I never used to be.

Another similar set of examples:

  • You used to fall sick all the time.
  • I never used to fall sick all the time.
  • I didn't use to fall sick.
  • I never fell sick at any time!
  • I was never sick.

You should always be able to determine the correct negation to use, as long you keep the definition of used to in mind:

describing an action or state of affairs that was done repeatedly or existed for a period of time in the past

New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd Edition)

I didn't used to is strictly ungrammatical, though widely used informally or colloquially. (The correct form is didn't use to, although this is also very informal.) Using the past tense of another verb after didn't, in this case used, is grammatically incorrect. Consider this and other similar verb constructions:

  • used to be : didn't used to be [Wrong]
  • had to have : didn't had to have [Wrong]
  • seemed to know : didn't seemed to know [Wrong]

Now, the problem with these examples can be rectified by converting the past tense to the infinitive:

  • used to be : didn't use to be [Correct, but not widely accepted]
  • had to have : didn't have to have [Correct]
  • seemed to know : didn't seem to know [Correct]

Also, did not/didn't always precedes the infinitive form of the verb it helps:

  • didn't go [didn't went? — No way!]
  • didn't help [didn't helped? — No way!]
  • didn't matter [didn't mattered? — No way!]

Here is a note from NOAD to back me up:

Usage

1 The construction used to is standard, but difficulties arise with the formation of negatives and questions. Traditionally, used to behaves as a modal verb, so that questions and negatives are formed without the auxiliary verb do, as in it used not to be like that and used she to come here? In modern English, this question form is now regarded as very formal or awkwardly old-fashioned, and the use with do is broadly accepted as standard, as in did she use to come here? Negative constructions with do, on the other hand (as in it didn't use to be like that), although common, are informal and are not generally accepted. 2 There is sometimes confusion over whether to use the form used to or use to, which has arisen largely because the pronunciation is the same in both cases . Except in negatives and questions, the correct form is used to: we used to go to the movies all the time (not we use to go to the movies). However, in negatives and questions using the auxiliary verb do, the correct form is use to, because the form of the verb required is the infinitive: I didn’t use to like mushrooms (not I didn't used to like mushrooms).

New Oxford American Dictionary


*(in my opinion, that is)

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@Jimi Oke: Right or not they are used heavily. With your never example, you are right about it being used as emphatic negation. It adds something to the sentence compared to didn't, I would use both, but in slightly different cases; the never form having a more restricted use. –  Orbling Jan 15 '11 at 1:34
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I didn’t used to is not wrong for most speakers of English. Your logic explaining why a rule of the language makes it is wrong is impeccable; but so is the logic argument that the perfect tense of eat should be eated. I didn’t used to is now (for most English speakers) simply another irregular form, albeit one that’s a phrase rather than a single word. Language Log has a good post on it, with some supporting data and analyses, here. –  PLL Jan 15 '11 at 1:35
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@Jimi: If you want to keep everyone happy, simply replace all the "wrongs" in your answer by their linguisticese equivalent "very informal", just as Burchfield does in my Fowler's quote. // Perhaps some of the confusion about this question is actually about the domains of writing and speech. –  Cerberus Jan 15 '11 at 6:12
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@Cerberus, @PLL, @Orbling: Thanks for the helpful suggestions. I will modify my answer appropriately, going with informal at best/colloquial :) I don't use the form didn't used to, though. Certainly, in my younger days, yes! Noooo, I didn't used to go there!! But I've always regarded this as incorrect, though widely accepted. –  Jimi Oke Jan 15 '11 at 16:19
    
@Jasper: Noble sentiments :) I heartily agree, though, seriously. However, I caved in in this instance. –  Jimi Oke Mar 5 '11 at 17:42

This is a surprising development. A pertinent xkcd comic comes to mind. But I am rather drunk now, so I will save myself the trouble of deleting emotional remarks in the morning. For the record, I never typed-and-deleted any such remarks.

This is what the 3rd edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage has to say on used to (my emphasis in bold):

[...] (e)(Only in very informal contexts) With do-support in negative and/or interrogative constructions: He didn't use to wear gloves—P. Cheney, 1964. [...] Prostate cancer ... didn't used to be a problem—Times, 1995.

(f) (Now regarded as somewhat formal) Without do-support in negative and/or interrogative constructions: You usen't to be like that—A. Christie, 1964; [...] I used not to dream—N. Bawden, 1987.

The negative/interrogative type Use(d)n't people to ... is also found, esp. in spoken English and in informal letters, and arguments rage as to whether it is 'better' than the type Didn't people use(d) to ...? Restructuring of the sentence is often the way out. People used to ... didn't they? is perhaps the best way to avoid the problem.

As with so many problems of language, the only satisfying solution seems to lie in recasting the sentence. Writers who want to be read should be prepared to do some work. Opinions differ on the extent to which speech should follow writing, as can be heard on the street every day.

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4  
+1 for late-night enthusiasm, articulacy, and use of Fowler’s, etc. –  PLL Jan 15 '11 at 6:33
    
Which xkcd was this? (Do you remember?) –  Ben Alpert May 15 '11 at 18:20
    
@BenAlpert: I'm afraid it was a rather cliché one... this comment will self destruct in a short while. xkcd.com/386 –  Cerberus May 16 '11 at 1:03
    
Well if you delete your comment, something would be wrong on the internet so I'll have to relink it right now for you. ;) –  Ben Alpert May 16 '11 at 1:58
    
@BenAlpert: Waah evil! –  Cerberus May 16 '11 at 12:55

Inspired by the comments, I have a possible answer for the confusion between didn't used to and didn't use to. In general American, I used to is pronounced with an /s/, while I use or I used in other constructions is pronounced with a /z/. I didn't use to is also pronounced with an /s/, but I believe this may be the only time that /use/ is pronounced with an /s/ and not a /z/, so it is a very understandable mistake to transcribe I didn't use to as I didn't used to. As far as I can tell, the /justə/ (or /justu/) part of I didn't use to and I used to are pronounced exactly alike. Except for not giving the pronunciations, this is pretty much what NOAD says, as quoted in Jimi Oke's answer.

A Google Ngram for American English is very enlightening:

enter image description here

People are now usually spelling didn't use to as didn't used to, and this construction is replacing used not to. For British English, you can do the same thing, and you find that while the construction in the UK is still generally used not to, the ungrammatical spelling didn't used to is replacing the grammatical spelling didn't use to.

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The form I didn't used to be is in fact correct colloquial English. The more formal variant would be I used not to be, but in contrast with the first version that sounds extremely formal and awkward to most English speakers.

The reason that the "phrase" used to gets this treatment is that this very common phrase has been reanalyzed in colloquial English as an invariant verb yusta. This verb forms a family with hafta ("have to"), gonna ("going to"), gotta ("got to"), wanna ("want to") and others, and shows some properties of a modal and some properties of a normal full verb:

I yusta go every day.
She yusta talk a lot. [No 3sg concord]
They didn't yusta fight. [Negative formed with "didn't"]

These new modal-esque verbs don't have a progressive or perfect form, and don't combine easily with other modals.

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To many BrE speakers, I think that the form used not to still sounds fine. (I wouldn’t swear to this — if any other British speakers dispute it, it would be interesting to look up data on the matter.) For my own part, I say didn’t used to, but I’m fairly sure my parents say used not to. –  PLL Jan 15 '11 at 0:47
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@PLL: My experience is that the form in London at least tends to be as above, though people do say used not to, but the pronunciation of used gets close to yusta without the a, rather than sounding the d. Also the to at the end gets closer to ta. So the yusta is there, but broken with not in the middle. didn't used to is also very common. –  Orbling Jan 15 '11 at 1:27
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@JSBangs: did you get this analysis from this Language Log post, by the way? If so, it might be worth noting that they’re a bit more tentative about it than you are here: MYL writes “The key insight here, I think, is that ‘used to’ has been sort of part-way re-analyzed as an aspectual auxiliary…” For instance, if yusta functioned completely analogously to hafta, then its direct negation would be *I don’t yusta, which I don’t gonna try to defend… –  PLL Jan 15 '11 at 1:44
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With "yusta", "They didn't used to fight" and "They didn't use to fight" are indistinguishable, so it's not clear which form is being used. –  ShreevatsaR Jan 15 '11 at 1:57
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@ShreevatsaR: Exactly what I was going to... mention. Why is everyone so sure that people say "didn't used to" as opposed to "didn't use to"? –  Cerberus Jan 15 '11 at 6:22

Mostly you would just say I was not ( or I wasn't ) - it's a little less grammatically convoluted and it says effectively the same thing in most cases. If you needed something more specific you might say something like "there was a time when I wasn't..." - it's longer but clearer.

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This is not the same at all, any more than I used to be is the same as I was! The distinction is subtle and maybe a bit difficult to pin down exactly, but it’s definitely there, and it’s a distinction that is wanted often enough that these idioms have arisen for it. –  PLL Jan 15 '11 at 0:49
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-1. This is actively misleading, since the construction I used to + VERB is completely different from the construction I was used to + PRESENT-PARTICIPLE. –  JSBձոգչ Jan 15 '11 at 0:53
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@JSBangs: You do not seem to interpret this answer the same way I do. I believe Glenatron was thinking of sentences like "before I met my wife, I was not very uptight about grammar" and "there was a time when people didn't care about the beauty of language". The latter construction sounds satisfactory. –  Cerberus Jan 15 '11 at 5:43
    
@JSBangs and @PLL I wasn't talking about an exactly matching linguistic construct, I was talking about the way an English speaker would use the English language. I don't know anyone who speaks English here in the UK who would say "I didn't used to be" in day to day conversation. –  glenatron Jan 16 '11 at 19:44
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@glenatron I realise this is 2 years on from when this discussion started but I'd like to say that I (UK) definitely would say "I didn't used to be [scared of flying/worried about my pension/aware of the dangers in arguments about grammar], but I am these days." –  Mynamite Feb 3 '13 at 23:04

protected by RegDwigнt Oct 31 '13 at 20:25

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