Let's say the answer is "Yes, X used to be Y". Now, how would you frame a direct question to get this answer?

Is it "Did X use to be Y?" That certainly sounds strange: is there any theory to support or attack it?

"Used X to be Y?" is unexceptionable, but sounds rather archaic.

Or do I have to rephrase with something like "Was X Y before?"

  • @EdwinAshworth I thought so too, but it didn't somehow sound right in my head. So I thought I'd post it here to see if someone comes up with a better way of asking it
    – Gavin
    Jan 15, 2015 at 18:03
  • Barnabas: I have edited in what I think you are asking, though mine is not the best phrasing and I hope someone can improve on it. Feel free to change or rollback, but add some explanation; your original is so unclear it would probably get downvoted and/or closed. Jan 15, 2015 at 18:30
  • @TimLymington No, I understand what ChrisSunami meant about the question being unclear. You've also been considerate enough to explain it better. Thank you!
    – Gavin
    Jan 15, 2015 at 18:37
  • 'Was X once Y?' // In negative sentences and questions, 'use to' replaces 'used to' when it follows 'did' or 'didn't' [CALD; CDO]: Did X use to be Y? Jan 16, 2015 at 0:00

1 Answer 1


Well, let's write a sentence with real nouns. "Mumbay was once called Bombay"

You could ask about its previous name in several different ways:

  • "Did Mumbay use to be called Bombay?"
  • "Was Mumbay once called Bombay?"
  • "Do you know if Mumbay was previously called Bombay?"
  • "Did Mumbay ever have a different name?"
  • "Usedn't Mumbay to be called Bombay?"

In case your doubt is about "used to", it is a defective verb, and can form the interrogaive and negative forms like this: Used you? Usedn't you? Did you use? You used not (usedn't), You didn't use. It cannot be used in the present tense, though.

  • That last one would be a stretch in the US, but the others are fine, and fairly normal usage. (I will note that the speaker would likely mumble "use" in the first sentence, because he's not entirely sure if it should be "use" or "used".)
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 15, 2015 at 19:10
  • @HotLicks You mean "Did Mumbay used...?" I've heard that but I think it's wrong.
    – Centaurus
    Jan 15, 2015 at 19:13
  • The thing is that the phrase is "Did Mumbay use to be called...", and to the listener that's essentially indistinguishable from "used to be" (especially if, as I said, it's mumbled).
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 15, 2015 at 19:28
  • @HotLicks I see what you mean, that old trick: when in doubt, you mumble.
    – Centaurus
    Jan 15, 2015 at 19:35
  • And when you're wrong but you're sure you're right, you shout.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 15, 2015 at 19:38

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