The phrase someone used to is used to talk about habits in past.

A year ago, I used to (not) do stuff.

Now I was wondering about a particular kind of question. They are kind of rhetorical and they contain a negative:

Wasn't he British?!

Here's an example: I read a book and 10 pages in I realize how much writing sucks. I actually like the author. I tell a friend and he or she says...

Really. Didn't he use to write really well?!

  • Is that correct (I suppose not)?
  • Would it be understood?
  • What could I say instead?


  • would the following be understood as an attempted play with the language:

Usedn't he to write very well?!

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    Used to is a complex past durative construction (an idiom, of course, with a special pronunciation and special syntax) explained here and here, and touched on here and here. Among other places. – John Lawler Feb 24 '14 at 17:45
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    Wasn't he the guy you used to date a year ago?; He used to write, didn't he? – mplungjan Feb 24 '14 at 17:45
  • @JohnLawler... it would be extraordinarily helpful if you could point me to the very post that answers all three of my questions. I've looked at two of your answers there but ignorant as I am, I seem to have missed it. I do know what it means. – Emanuel Feb 24 '14 at 17:56
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    Considering that the phrase used to is the preterite of an Early Modern English idiom to use + infinitive 'to be accustomed, to be wont + infinitive,* I see no issue with I did not use to. Some authorities, however, believe that used to is an entirely fixed idiom that cannot be negated by the normal means, instead preferring 'I used not to', which is also perfectly reasonable. – Anonym Feb 24 '14 at 18:37
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    As I pointed out, in speech, didn't used to is the normal, common, and unexceptionable negative of used to. However, in writing, there is no standard accepted spelling of this expression, so it is deprecated, no matter how it's spelled. Also, nobody ever says "Usedn't he to write very well?!", no matter what they may write, or believe. Throwing that into a conversation is guaranteed to be taken as a joke, and may divert the conversation into peevage in the right context. – John Lawler Feb 24 '14 at 19:10

Didn't he use to write really well?!

There is some debate around whether it should be "didn't he use to" and "didn't he used to" which is discussed at length in Are there alternatives to the common construction “didn't used to”? The short version is that "didn't use" to is more commonly considered correct.

But yes, this usage would be understood and is spoken rather frequently.

As for "usedn't", it certainly wouldn't be mistaken for actual English so readers would have to assume you were playing around.

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