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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?

Also...

  • 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. Commented Feb 24, 2014 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
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 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
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 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
    Commented Feb 24, 2014 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. Commented Feb 24, 2014 at 19:10

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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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  • Page 496 of Collins Cobuild English Usage reads: If the 'wh'-word is the object of the clause, or part of the object, you use the auxiliary do after it, followed by the subject and used to: What did you used to do on Sundays?. Yet, I do not know why used is compulsory in wh-questions, unlike in yes/no-questions.
    – GJC
    Commented Aug 25, 2020 at 19:49
  • oed.com/oed2/00273881
    – GJC
    Commented Nov 18, 2020 at 10:12

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