August 25, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: would and lead & used to and semi-modal auxiliary verbs

Posted in auxiliary verbs, helping verbs, lead & led, used to, weak language, would at 6:47 am by dlseltzer


I don’t know if it is a typo or a misunderstanding of the word or what, but I was reading an article in the New York Times earlier this week; it was about John Huntsman and his concerns about the  extremism of other Republicans running for president, and I came across this reader’s comment:

I hope he gets a chance, but the elephants love the blow hearts.

 And I love ‘blow hearts,’ too.

Tip 1: Lead and would

What do lead and would have to do with one another? Nothing. I just ran across a couple of items in grant proposals over the weekend that I wanted to remind you about, and since we have addressed both in the past, and neither seemed to merit its own tip,  I put them together, here.


The past tense of lead  is led. ‘Lead,’ as a verb, is pronounced like ‘feed.’ The past tense of ‘lead’ is ‘led.’

‘Lead,’ pronounced like ‘led,’ is a noun meaning ‘a heavy, soft, metallic element.’

So unless you are writing about metal or a pencil, the word you are probably looking for is ‘led.’


So what’s wrong with would? It’s a perfectly good word. Well no, it isn’t—not when we are writing grant proposals.

When we write a proposal, we are hoping to persuade the reviewers, the program officers, and the advisory councils of the merit of our work and how and why the work is worthy of being funded. It is no time for conditional, dare I say, wimpy language. It comes off as whiny, almost begging:

“If you would, please sir, only give me the money, then I would do the experiment.”

That is not how we are going to get funded. We have to sure of ourselves, commanding in tone and displaying confidence that we are going to get funded.

 “We will conduct the experiment in three steps.”

 ‘Will’ is a much more powerful word than ‘would,’ and we should use ‘will’ in our grant proposals.

Same thing goes for ‘can’ and ‘could.’

Tip 2: Used to or semi-modal auxiliary verbs

A reader writes:

Have you ever discussed “used to” as a helping verb?  It’s a pretty odd construction, especially when used with didn’t—as in “I didn’t used to go to work.”  Is that correct?  You hear it all the time.  And if you eliminate the contraction and say it as “I did not used to go to work” it’s really odd.

When I wrote the last phrase, I first typed “use to” instead of “used to” and then I got to wondering which (if either) is correct.

 Okay, here goes. I want to preface this tip by saying, this form of ‘used to’ should NEVER be used in your formal communication—neither written nor spoken. This is absolutely a colloquialism and should be used in casual discourse only.

Okay, now here goes. Let’s start with helping or auxiliary verbs. Helping verbs usually are not the main verbs in a sentence (there are a few exceptions—‘be,’ ‘have,’ and ‘do’ can all function as main verbs); auxiliary verbs, for the most part,  don’t have meaning on their own. They ‘help’ the main verb by providing a sense of time (when the action of the main verb is occurring).

There are three types of auxiliary verbs—primary, modal, and semi-modal. Primary auxiliary verbs are the ones that can stand on their own; here are the primary auxiliary verbs:

be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, have, had, has, do, does, did

 Modal auxiliary verbs modify the main verb to provide a sense of possibility or necessity. These are the modal auxiliary verbs:

 should, could, would, may, might, must, will, can, shall, ought to

 Semi-modal auxiliary verbs are called ‘semi-modals’ because they sometimes act like modals, and they sometimes act like main verbs. These are the semi-modal auxiliary verbs:

 need, dare, used to

 Got that? Good, so now back to the reader’s question.

‘Used to’ as a helping or auxiliary verb to indicate a habitual or past condition (I used to put two spaces after a period, but now I know better) generally poses no problem.  However, when we try to use it in the negative, that is a different story. I have never encountered a topic upon which so many language mavens pronounced edicts while providing no reason for their conclusions.

 Some say, “’I didn’t used to’ is correct.”

 Some say, “’I didn’t use to’ is correct.”

 Some say, “’I used not to’ is correct.”

 The last expression is fairly common in British English but not in American English. I wanted to mention it because, to my ear, it is so unusual and discordant, and it is an example of the myriad distinctions between British and American English.

Those on the side of ‘I didn’t use to’ aver that this is the ‘modern’ usage, and it is similar to ‘I didn’t use to walk (not walked) to school.’

Those on the side of ‘I didn’t used to’ insist that ‘used to’ is a fixed form indicating past action.

The pundits are fairly evenly divided on this issue; however, to my mind, the more scholarly writers are behind ‘I didn’t used to.’ So, that’s the band wagon, I am jumping on.

But the bottom line is that since it shouldn’t be used in our writing anyway (see my preface, above), in the end, it really doesn’t matter, and all’s well that ends well.


1 Comment »

  1. Warsaw Will said,

    ‘Used to’ – Hi, in EFL (BrE) we teach ‘… didn’t use to’ and ‘Did you use to …?’ – Michael Swan, in Practical English Usage, mentions the modal forms ‘I used not …’ and ‘Used you to …?’, as existing in formal British English, but says they are very rare. I certainly can’t remember hearing them in normal conversation.

    As far as the final ‘d’ in questions and negatives in the ‘did’ version is concerned, I notice that New Fowler’s has missing it out as optional. This possibility was new to me (from your post), even though according to MWDEU, leaving the ‘d’ on is more of a British habit, and is considered an error in AmE. In EFL we certainly teach leaving the ‘d’ off; not that it makes any difference in speech, of course.

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