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On Language

Beware Usen’t To

January 28, 2014 | by

Constance_Charpentier_-_Melancholy_-_WGA04799

This is what happens when you use usen’t to. Constance Charpentier, Melancholy, 1801, oil on canvas.

At ten every morning, Garner’s Usage Tip lands in my inbox—I’m sure Garner could suggest a less clunky formulation for “in my inbox”—providing a quick bit of unfussy, eminently sensible grammatical advice. There are worse things to look forward to.

Yesterday’s installment was the third in a scintillating four-part series on used to, which gets pretty spicy, as far as grammar goes. Fun fact: the contracted form of used not to is usen’t to, which has been, despite its pleasant lilt, almost wholly displaced by didn’t use to.

You could try to bring it back into style, but apart from sounding pretentious—which you would—you’d run the risk of becoming very miserable. Take a look at usen’t to as it appears throughout literature and you’ll see: it’s almost always used in the context of a total bummer. See below for examples from Forster, Trollope, Beckett, et al., none of which make the sun shine any brighter.

Please, if you can find any positive instance of usen’t to, direct me to it. Otherwise I’m inclined to offer a warning: abstain from this phrase, or you’re liable to be plunged into cafard, parochialism, censoriousness, or just sort of a downer mood.

E. M. Forster, Howards End

“Meg, may I tell you something? I like Henry.”
“You’d be odd if you didn’t,” said Margaret.
“I usen’t to.”
“Usen’t!” She lowered her eyes a moment to the black abyss of the past. They had crossed it, always excepting Leonard and Charles. They were building up a new life, obscure, yet gilded with tranquillity. Leonard was dead; Charles had two years more in prison. One usen’t always to see clearly before that time. It was different now.

Arthur Wing Pinero, The Second Mrs. Tanqueray

“My face is covered with little shadows that usen’t to be there.”

Iris Murdoch, A Fairly Honourable Defeat

“They’ve got a sharper eye than we have for what’s rotten in this society.”
“Young people have always had that. But it usen’t to affect their joie de vivre.”

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now

“Anyways the girls shouldn’t let on as they are running after the gentlemen. A gentleman goes here and he goes there, and he speaks up free, of course. In my time, girls usen’t to do that. But then, maybe, I’m old-fashioned,” added Mrs. Pipkin, thinking of the new dispensation.

Samuel Beckett, Embers

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.] Bolton.

 

6 COMMENTS

6 Comments

  1. Niamh | January 29, 2014 at 4:24 am

    We commonly use “usen’t” in everyday speech in Ireland. In fact, I think that “didn’t use to” sounds quite precocious, when spoken.I would tend not to use “usen’t” when writing. I had thought it was incorrect,just another Hiberno-English turn of phrase, like the “amn’t” referred to in Eavan Boland’s “An Irish Childhood in England: 1951″.


    was the teacher in the London convent who,
    when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
    turned and said — “you’re not in Ireland now.”

  2. Jack M | January 29, 2014 at 9:20 am

    I’ve never heard this phrase in my life, and wouldn’t dream of using it.

  3. Denkof Zwemmen | January 29, 2014 at 10:37 am

    All your examples — including the Beckett — are from speech by fictional characters. Their use of “usen’t to” does not imply the authors’ approval. Quite the opposite, in fact. They help place the character as coming from a particular lower middle-brow milieu. Any examples of “usen’t to” from an author writing in his own voice — a non-fiction writer, a memoirist, for example?

  4. Jack | January 29, 2014 at 12:33 pm

    I’d like to second Niamh. Usen’t is used more often than not in Ireland and is generally perceived (if it is perceived at all)as being slang/incorrect. It is still technically Hiberno-English. Not all Hibero is Gaelic in origin and ‘incorrect’; like many colonial dialects and patois, is it conservative of archaic forms. Take ‘Ye’ for example – used commonly in Ireland for you plural, and hasn’t been in use in the UK since the times of Middle or perhaps Early Modern English. I amn’t going to comment on Boland’s poem as I think I’m after saying enough ;)

  5. Dan Piepenbring | January 29, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Thanks. Garner’s Usage Tip does say, as I neglected to mention, that the contraction occurs mostly in in Irish speech. The latest example they cite in print, though, is from a 1996 article in the Irish Times. Does it still find its way into papers there?

  6. Jack | January 30, 2014 at 4:48 am

    I’m surprised it turned up in The Times. As I mention above, it is generally perceived as being incorrect and The Times likes to be perceived as high-brow. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned up in one of the tabloids, with their daring tendency to reflect how people actually speak… I’m sure journos in The Times would use it if they were aware of its archaic origins;) But, to (pretentiously?) use the father of modern linguistics Ferdinand de Saussure’s terms, it falls squarely into the ‘parole’ category rather than ‘langue’, meaning it lives more in our mouths than in print and in textbooks, lives being the operative word!

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