I know usen’t isn’t used in everyday English, but how about using it in an exam, an essay, or a formal letter?

Is it right to use usen’t instead of didn’t use to?

  • 3
    It's colloquial in various dialects. Probably not acceptable where formal language is required.
    – deadrat
    Dec 12 '16 at 9:43
  • 2
    I would not recommend it's use in anything formal.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 12 '16 at 12:39
  • 3
    @Hot Licks: That would be its - but yes, I totally agree. Dec 12 '16 at 13:43
  • 1
    @WS2: Somewhat bizarrely, I find the contracted form (He usen't to smoke) even more "formal, stilted" than full versions with or without do-support (it makes me think of posh/formal speakers "playing" at using informal contractions). But I did find it intriguing when John Lawler asserted that nobody knows whether there should be an explicit past tense in He didn't use[d] to smoke (any relevant syntactic rules being "inconclusive", and of course nobody could really pronounce or hear any difference). Mar 10 '20 at 17:57
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers Yes, I know what you mean - perhaps more posh than formal. It seems the sort of thing that belongs with "MRP" (marked RP) pronunciation - where "cloth" is pronounced as if it were spelled "clawth" - sort of Duke of Edinburgh stuff. They probably say "usen't" in polo clubs!
    – WS2
    Mar 10 '20 at 19:40

The only use of "usen't" I've ever heard was by W. C. Fields in "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break." He says it to the churlish waitress in the diner scene (at 2:48 of the video clip):

"Usen't you be an old follies girl?"

  • "You used to have a pair of Canadian snow-shoes, usen't you? May I borrow them?" from "Death and the Dancing Footman", by Ngaio Marsh (c.1941); Berkley Edition, September 1961 (page 79). N.B. Miss Marsh was a cracking good mystery writer from New Zealand. Apr 26 '19 at 14:25

I agree that "usen't" is inappropriate in formal writing. However, it is found frequently in literature, though almost exclusively in dialogue (or stream of consciousness monologues). For example:

In classical literature:

  • John Galsworthy, in The Foresyte Sagar: You have changed, you usen't to have that line between your eyes, and your jaw's getting too strong.
  • Oscar Wilde, in The Importance of Being Earnest: LORD DARLINGTON: I am not one of her asmirers. CECIL GRAHAM: I usen't to be, but I am now.
  • George Bernard Shaw in Major Barbara: That is a new accomplishment of Andrew's, by the way. He usen't to drink.
  • A.J. Cronin, in The Citadel: Don't make a joke of it, darling. You usen't to talk that way.

20th century novelists:

  • The Hireling, by L. P. Hartley: He doesn't take taxis much - at least he usen't to.
  • Never Again, by Francis King: It usen't to be like that. We used to see much more of the boys- my husband and I... It was more a family, then.

21st century novelists:

  • The Stories, by Jane Gardam: 'I'm slow too.' 'You usen't to be. I'm sure you could write a big book.
  • Sheila O'Flanagan uses it in dialogue (for example, in My Favourite Goodbye: I usen't to think so. But I do now.) and in stream of consciousness monologue (for example, in If You Were Me: He usen't to be a morning person, but maybe he's changed.)
  • 3
    Most of these are in dialogue. So my advice would be not to use it unless it occurs in your dialect, or you are writing dialogue for somebody speaking in a dialect where it occurs. Jul 25 at 13:50
  • This is actually the first time I've ever heard the term "usen't" - I thought it was a joke.
    – Steve
    Jul 25 at 15:56
  • I'm not familiar with all the writers you here cite, but those I know are all from one side of the proverbial pond. My own reading experience also suggests that it is a Britishism, though some of your examples are Irish. Jul 25 at 20:03
  • I suppose it sounds fine to me because I'm British. But it's not dialect; it's simply a contraction that is found in dialogue to reflect the immediacy of spoken language, like wouldn't for would not, I'd for I would, would've for would have, etc. Jul 27 at 1:23

Samuel Beckett also uses "usen't" in Embers:

Henry: I usen't to need anyone, just to myself, stories, there was a great one about an old fellow called Bolton, I never finished it, I never finished any of them, I never finished anything, everything always went on for ever. (Pause.)

Good enough for him, good enough for anyone.

  • Did Beckett use it in formal writing? Jul 25 at 15:29
  • Beckett also used sentences and paragraphs that span multiple pages; this doesn't mean that you should.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 26 at 9:35

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.