August 26, 2010

Weekly Language Usage Tips: used to & continuous or continual

Posted in continuous/continual, used to at 7:53 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: used to

A reader writes:

Have you ever written about the phrase “used to” as an auxiliary verb, as in “I used to go to the opera, but don’t anymore”?` It is really an oddity. I am unaware of any similar auxiliary verb in French or Spanish, the only two language with which I have any familiarity (though I could be wrong).

“Used to” is an odd phrase. To be honest, I don’t know if there are equivalent auxiliary verbs in other languages. The only languages I know, besides English, are French and Latin, and sadly, Google Translate does not translate things into Latin (it will translate into Latvian, however.). In French, it translated the sentence, “I used to walk this way to school” as

J’avais l’habitude de parcourir ce chemin de l’école.

I’ve also seen “j’avais l’habitude” used frequently as the equivalent of “I used (to)” in casual writing, so perhaps that holds the same function. If anyone knows of any other language equivalents, please let me know, and I will pass them along.

No matter, this brings us to a review of auxiliary verbs and how they are used. Auxiliary verbs, sometimes called ‘helping verbs’ are used with the main verb of the sentence to add additional meaning to the sentence. Some auxiliary verbs such as ‘be,’ ‘have,’ ‘do,’ and ‘will’ indicate tense, voice, mood or condition.

‘Used to’ adds a condition to the main verb. It connotes an action that occurred regularly (or habitually) in the past but occurs no more.

I used to sing in the choir, but I don’t anymore.

The parade used to take place in the summer.

She used to think of her old friend when the moon was full.

“Used to’ is a very casual expression, and it has no place in our formal writing.

The amazing and amusing thing for me about ‘used to’ is that there is a controversy among grammarians surrounding its use (and quite a vociferous one at that). I swear language and grammar folks can create a fuss about almost every usage in the English language.

This is the controversy: Some people believe that, when used in the negative, we should use ‘didn’t use to,’ and some believe strongly that when used in the negative, we should use ‘didn’t used to.’


Proponents of ‘didn’t use to’ argue that ‘didn’t’ is in the past tense so ‘use’ does not have to be. Proponents of ‘didn’t used to’ argue that ‘used to’ is an idiom and shouldn’t be changed regardless of ‘didn’t.’ Garner, who supports the latter rule, goes on to argue that there is further evidence of why ‘used’ should stay in the past tense. He says that the ‘s’ in ‘used’ in ‘didn’t used to’ is pronounced the same as ‘used’ and not the same as ‘use.’ This is true when we are considering the verb, ‘use,’ but the argument fails when we consider the noun, ‘use.’

It could be worse. Both Fowler and Garner said that the past tense used to be written ‘usedn’t.’

I don’t have strong feelings on the subject. In fact, to be honest, I have NO feelings on the subject, except this: Don’t use ‘used to’ or ‘didn’t used to’ or ‘didn’t use to’ in any of your formal writing! And, of course, don’t ever use ‘usedn’t.’

That’s all there is to it.

Tip 2: Continuous or continual

A reader writes:

Would you clarify the difference between continuous and continual? It seems I am continuously mixing them up.

We discussed this a couple of years ago, but a refresher is always a good thing. I am happy to explain this, but I must note that the reader is not ‘continuously’ mixing up the words-she is ‘continually’ mixing them up. Here’s why.

Continuously refers to something occurring nonstop, without interruption.

Throughout the stormy night, the rain pounded continuously on my roof.

Paul McCartney played continuously for three hours at the concert Thursday night.

Continual refers to something recurring intermittently, that is, with some periods of interruption.

The telephone rang continually throughout the evening, making it hard to concentrate on my reading.

So, if the reader ‘continuously’ mixed up the words, she would be doing that and nothing else. The reader ‘continually’ mixing up the words means that she does it often, probably whenever she has to pick one to use, but it’s not the only thing that the reader does.


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