Beware Usen’t To


On Language


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.