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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?

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    It's colloquial in various dialects. Probably not acceptable where formal language is required.
    – deadrat
    Dec 12 '16 at 9:43
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    I would not recommend it's use in anything formal.
    – Hot Licks
    Dec 12 '16 at 12:39
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    @Hot Licks: That would be its - but yes, I totally agree. Dec 12 '16 at 13:43
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    @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
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    @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
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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?"

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  • "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
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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.)
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    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
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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.

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  • 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

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