I just made a minor grammar correction on Travel SE, and another user said the grammar correction was unnecessary.

The original text was

Another factor--sometimes life happens and you can't fly. In the old days you could simply sell your ticket to someone else, now you either have to eat a hefty change fee or lose it outright. That's money in their pockets that they didn't used to get.

It was corrected to:

Another factor--sometimes life happens and you can't fly. In the old days you could simply sell your ticket to someone else, now you either have to eat a hefty change fee or lose it outright. That's money in their pockets that they didn't use to get.

  1. Was this grammatical correction an improvement?
  2. Was the original text grammatically correct?
  3. Is the edited text grammatically correct?
  • 7
    The crucial point is that the verb is "use" - that is the infinitive form. When a verb follows an auxiliary verb like "did", as in the OP's example, it has to be an infinitive, which is why "use" is correct, not the past tense form "used"
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 14:03
  • 3
    As it's so vague, why not change the phraseology to one that is absolute. The phrase is not particularly good English as it stands, either way.
    – Tim
    Aug 16 '16 at 16:27
  • 7
    @RJFalconer- I am British, and as far as I'm concerned, didn't used to is the only way.
    – JavaLatte
    Aug 16 '16 at 16:34
  • 4
    The did carries the past tense. You don't need it twice just as I wouldn't say: I did brushed my teeth this morning.
    – shawnt00
    Aug 16 '16 at 16:48
  • 4
    @Tim, didn't use(d) to is informal. As I mention in my answer, there is a correct, formal, undisputed way of saying the same thing, namely used not to.
    – JavaLatte
    Aug 16 '16 at 17:40

11 Answers 11


Both are acceptable (yes, I know I'm the one who said you were wrong), but used will induce fewer corrections :)

Various opinions:

English Grammar Today has this to say on this exact topic:

The negative of used to is most commonly didn’t use(d) to. Sometimes we write it with a final -d, sometimes not. Both forms are common, but many people consider the form with the final -d to be incorrect, and you should not use it in exams:

It didn’t use to be so crowded in the shops as it is nowadays.

I didn’t used to like broccoli when I was younger, but I love it now. (Don’t use this form in exams.)

In very formal styles, we can use the negative form used not to:

She used not to live as poorly as she does now.

Language Log suggests that used is preferred by English users at large (but of course as good descriptivists they offer no comment on which should be preferred...)

Over at EL&U use is agreed to be 'more correct', but is firmly in second place behind 'rewrite to avoid'.

BBC World Service Learning English is firmly use.

  • 5
    Just my $0.02. To me, common does not have bearing on whether it's correct. Ain't is commonly used as a substitute for forms of is not, but it's incorrect. Same here with used. Aug 17 '16 at 5:13
  • 10
    @JuanCarlosCoto Who exactly decides that ain't is not correct? That didn't used to get is wrong? Is that you, or your circle of friends or grammar school teachers or linguists or who exactly? And by what authority? And what if I don't agree with them? Is there an appeals procedure? Aug 17 '16 at 6:31
  • 3
    @JuanCarlosCoto English is not a regulated language. There is no language academy or other body that rules on correct usage. Therefore there is only common usage. Some common usage is frowned upon (such as your example) but that is more for social rather than gramatical reasons.
    – user5505
    Aug 17 '16 at 8:28
  • 1
    If you want to avoid arguments over what is correct, you can almost always substitute "never used to", with virtually the same meaning, and none of the controversy :-)
    – psmears
    Aug 17 '16 at 13:01
  • 1
    Maybe we have to get used to this usage ... Aug 18 '16 at 14:33

Opinions vary on this one. Here is a quote from Garner's Modern American Usage that explains why it should be didn't used to.

It shouldn't be written didn't use to, although this point has stirred up controversy among usage pundits. The argument goes that didn't supplies the past tense, and the main verb that follows should be in the present tense, as it is in a sentence such as "You didn't have to do that." But used to is an idiomatic phrase based on an archaic meaning of use (to be in the habit of). The form of the verb is fixed in the positive used to, and is unchanged in the far less common (and still less accepted) negative form, didn't used to.

It is interesting that if you look in google books for didn't use to, you get to page 3 before finding any real references- ones that don't occur in grammar books. When you look at didn't used to, there are seven real references on the first two pages. It seems that some grammar book writers have a little bee in their bonnet about didn't use to, but ordinary English speakers go for didn't used to.

Part of the problem is that didn't use(d) to is informal: in times gone by, it was not something that you would normally write down. And if you say used to at a normal speed, it becomes use-to: it is quite difficult to tell whether there is a d there or not.

The formal way of expressing this is used not to. This NGram is picking up lots of false positives, but examination of actual occurrences seems to show that used not to was, and still is, more widely used in writing than either form of didn't use(d) to. Here are some examples:

Our princes used not to dismiss ministers who served them well - Bishop Burnet's history of his own time (1818)

Mind you, I used not to be, either. How not to murder your mother (2010)

One of the strongest arguments against treating used to as a standard verb form is the pronunciation. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, with the verb form of use, the s is voiced /juːz/ whereas in the noun form it is not voiced /juːs/. In I used to and I didn't used to, the s is unvoiced. It's definitely not a noun, but it is also not a standard verb form: it is something unique, and that's what upsets the grammarians.

  • 9
    It should be "didn't use to". The verb is "use" (not "used") , so that is its infinitival form. When a verb follows an auxiliary like "did", it has to be in the infinitive form, and hence it should be "use" not "used". For the same reason, in your example "have" is the infinitive form, not present tense.
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 12:42
  • 1
    @BillJ: The spelling "used" is employed for two different words, pronounced "yewzd" and "yoost". Only the former is really a past-tense form. The opposite of "This is the controller he used to activate the set" would be "This is the controller he didn't use to activate the set", but opposite of "He used to visit regularly" would not be "He didn't use to visit regularly".
    – supercat
    Aug 16 '16 at 14:20
  • 2
    When the aspectual verb "use" occurs as a lexical verb, then "He didn't use to visit regularly" is the correct opposite of "He used to visit regularly". What else could it possibly be? The positive clause uses the past tense form "used", and the negative clause uses the infinitive "use", since it is following the auxiliary verb "did"
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 14:34
  • 1
    @BillJ: I would suggest that in the sentence "He used to visit regularly", the verb is "used to". See my answer. Basically, I would say that in speaking there's a word pronounced "yoostoo" which is written as though it's two words, "used to". In spoken English, the same word is used in the sentence "He didn't yoostoo do that"; the only question is whether the orthography should change to indicate tense.
    – supercat
    Aug 16 '16 at 14:40
  • 1
    @supercat. The "to" is a subordinator; it belongs with the clause that is complement to "use": "I used [to smoke]". The pronunciation is tricky, as I mentioned in my answer, since used to is pronounced with a single /t/ and hence is homophonous with the use to in "He didn't use to smoke"
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 14:51

As has been pointed out by others, the "logical" argument for I didn't use to do that is that did already carries the verb tense, so it's not needed in used. Same as, for example, I didn't have to do that.

But as this NGram shows, usage has changed considerably over the past century and more...

enter image description here

Unsurprisingly therefore, you'll find plenty of traditionalist grammarians defending the older style (which is completely inaudible in normal speech anyway). But it's pretty obvious which version has the upper hand today, so I suggest you go with that unless you want to look like an old fuddy-duddy.

As pointed out by John Lawler in an ELU answer on this topic...

Both [spellings] look bad, the first because used looks like a misspelled infinitive,and the second because use to doesn't look like it sounds like used to should.
This should be considered a bug in the orthographic system.

It's worth noting parallels between the voiced and unvoiced versions of used to / have to. In both cases the unvoiced version has a totally different meaning (relating to habitual action / obligation, rather than employment / ownership). If you'd never seen written English, you'd naturally classify the voiced/unvoiced versions as different words, not different pronunciations of "the same" words.

Interestingly, the "special" version of have to actually does have two different pronunciations itself (past tense I had to go then is pronounced hat; in present tense I have to go now it's haff). There's no such split with used to because in semantic terms it's always "past tense" anyway. And since language use is primarily driven by spoken rather than written forms, this is essentially why people increasingly tend to ignore the pedagogic / logical arguments and stick with used to in all contexts.

  • I thought the string "did not use to" might appear in many sentences without the meaning of "didn't use(d) to." Another ngram with apostrophes in place—based on the technique Mark Liberman employed to quash "nor'easter"—is here. It gives a similar result, though. Also, I am all in favor of your new icon. Aug 16 '16 at 18:49
  • 1
    Bear in mind that NGram reflects written usages. In the past, people would say didn't use(d) to but would write used not to. The rise shown from the 1970s onwards may simply reflect the rise in usage of informal expressions in writing. Or maybe the rise is caused by the plethora of grammarians banging on about this issue...
    – JavaLatte
    Aug 16 '16 at 18:55
  • 2
    @JavaLatte: I specifically pointed out that the distinction is completely inaudible in normal speech, so we're only talking about the orthography here. And if grammarians bang on about how it should be written, obviously they would all endorse the "logical" principle (besides which, grammarians also always endorse historically-established usage over emerging variations). The rise must be caused by what "ordinary people" write, in spite of grammarians. Aug 17 '16 at 11:55
  • @FumbleFingers: If typical readers shown two sentences would routinely understand the first at first glance, and would stumble on the second, I would suggest that's a sign that the first is, if anything, superior to the second. Having the spelling of "yoosta" change based upon tense when the pronunciation doesn't, may make it more "grammatically correct", but it would also make it more likely to require readers to mis-parse the sentence on their first pass.
    – supercat
    Aug 17 '16 at 14:33
  • @cupercat: I find it impossible to believe that any native speaker (who could actually read) could have any problem understanding I did used/use to like John, but not any more regardless of the orthography. A few might have strong opinions on how it should be written, but as John Lawler points out in an ELU answer both look bad, the first because used looks like a misspelled infinitive,and the second because use to doesn't look like it sounds like used to should. This should be considered a bug in the orthographic system. Aug 17 '16 at 14:50

The original text was incorrect. You were right.

It's tricky for two reasons, I think.

  1. In speaking, the d and t of "used to" merge into a single sound: /juːstuː/
  2. "Used to" is a standard idiom that we very rarely analyse or rearrange. In reality, the "to" belongs to the object (an infinitive) of the verb "used", but we tend to see it as belonging to the "used to" idiom.

I used to get money

I did not use to get money

So let's take the "to [X]" away from "used to [X]", like so:

I used [snip]

I did not use [snip]

Clearly, "use" (not "used") is correct in the latter. Compare:

I used shampoo

I did not use shampoo

  • Although I appreciate the arguments in here and can see that "use to" might be argued to be the correct form, I think the idiom has become so well used that "didn't use to" would often be interpreted as incorrect, while "didn't used to" would attract far less comment. I don't think the comparison with "used shampoo" is helpful here - as that sense is about usage of a particular thing, rather than the sense used in the OP where "used to" describes past actions or habits. I agree that in the "use shampoo" example the equivalent "I did not used shampoo" would be absolutely wrong. Aug 16 '16 at 12:01
  • @JRichardSnape: I admit that I had never before seen it argued that "used to" has become petrified. Nevertheless, I stand by my answer; if both choices are going to be controversial, I don't see why we shouldn't go for the form that's grammatically consistent (hence my "shampoo" example). And etymologically, "used [to have]" and "used [shampoo]" are the same word. Aug 16 '16 at 12:09
  • 3
    I don't agree. It should be "didn't use to". The verb is "use" (not "used"), so that is its infinitival form. Any verb following an auxiliary like "did" has to be in the infinitive form, and hence it should be "use" not "used".
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 12:49
  • 3
    @supercat. That is a matter of ellipsis, which we all use from time to time. Preposition stranding occurs in much the same way. A verb like "smoke", for example, occurs as a to infinitival, and hence the "to" is part of the infinitival VP, as in "I like [to smoke]". Nobody tries to claim that the verb is "like to", do they?
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 15:03
  • 1
    @supercat In "I like to eat bananas", "eat" is clearly a verb since it has a direct object "bananas" and adverbial modification is possible, cf. "I like to noisily eat bananas". The fact that "use" tends to resists such modification is due to its lexical and semantic properties (it is highly idiomatic), though the negator "not" is possible, cf. "He used not to like it". But, tellingly, if you enter "I used always to *" on Ngram, it returns plenty of examples.
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 17:39

The phrase "used to" may seem as though it employs the verb "use" with an infinitive, but it doesn't really. Consider the following answers to the italicized questions preceeding:

  • Where's the key you used to open the lock? Here's the key I used [to].

  • Do you go there often? I used [to].

The former construction cannot accept the word "to" without a following verb (the answer could have included "to open it"), but the latter construction requires the word "to" even without any following verb.

The pronunciation of the idiomatic phrase "used to" in the second answer is different from the pronunciation of verb "use" followed by an infinitive, and such pronunciation would remain the same even in the construct "didn't used to". Since the positive construction combines the "d" in "used" into the "t" of "to" (so it's not really pronounced), it's not clear from pronunciation whether the negative form keeps the "d", but many native English speakers would be unaccustomed to having the word "use" be employed as a verb while being pronounced like the noun.


The verb "used to" and the verb "use" are two different words with different meanings. To confuse the two and claim that to "used to" requires the infinitive form "use" because it follows "did" or "didn't" ignores the fact "used to" is a completely different word. I say that the construction "used to" is a word even though it appears to be two words,hence the confusion and the understandable desire to correct the past-tense-looking part of "used to", but the construction signaling "a habitual act in the past" to follow it never appears without the "to"; therefore I claim that the construction is together a word in its own right. "I used to use shampoo" and "I didn't used to use shampoo", for example, are correct if awkward sounding. And very different in meaning from "I used shampoo" and "I didn't use shampoo".

I wouldn't use those constructions in writing, except in dialogue. "I used shampoo when I was younger, but I don't use it now."

  • Welcome to ELL and thank you for your answer. Remember: our objective is to help new learners to master the very difficult English language. If you provide references to support novel theories of grammar and construction (e.g., that the phrase used to is "word" which comprises two words!) they will be more useful. The community will vote on your answer's usefulness. Aug 17 '16 at 6:45
  • 1
    I agree with your view that English has a single word pronounced "yoostoo" or "yoosta" whose spelling includes a word space. The pronunciation of the infinitive form is generally the same as for the past tense form, and changing the spelling for the infinitive form is unlikely to help a reader correctly parse the sentence. A reader may balk at "The shampoo I didn't used to use to wash my hair", but would probably grasp the meaning faster than "The shampoo I didn't use to use to wash my hair".
    – supercat
    Aug 17 '16 at 7:01
  • 2
    This answer is fine. Ignore the pedantic welcome you got. The only thing this answer is missing is a comment by @BillJ saying that didn't used to is incorrect. Aug 17 '16 at 7:18
  • @AlanCarmack: The phrase "Didn't yoosta" would not qualify as formal English whether yoosta is spelled "used to" or "use to". I would suggest readers would be less likely to recognize "use to" as a spelling for yoosta, and would regard that as an argument favoring "used to". Grammar rules are best viewed as a tool which generally helps make things understandable; in cases where the grammatical rules would not serve that purpose, they should be overridden.
    – supercat
    Aug 17 '16 at 14:41

The original text is valid. My dictionary lists "used to" as (1) "accustomed to" and (2) "... express habitual or accustomed actions ... taking place in the past but not continuing into the present".

See "The New Collins concise dictionary of the English language", 1985 edition.

  • 2
    I don't agree. It should be "didn't use to". The verb is "use" (not "used"), so that is its infinitival form. Any verb following an auxiliary like "did" has to be in the infinitive form, and hence it should be "use" not "used".
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 12:46
  • 1
    @BillJ Please read the other answers, they write words like "Opinions vary" and "Both are acceptable". My answer says the "used to" form is valid and I give some justification. I have not said it is the only correct form.
    – AdrianHHH
    Aug 16 '16 at 13:02
  • 2
    I will concede, though, that the spelling "used" is sometimes found instead of "use" in negative and inverted constructions, but that doesn't make it right.
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 13:28
  • 2
    I don't see how this citation answers the question. Everyone agrees about the meaning of "used to" by itself; the question is about how adding the word "didn't" before this expression might change its spelling.
    – sumelic
    Aug 17 '16 at 6:06
  • 1
    The question is called "Didn't use to get" or "Didn't used to get"?" and every time the word "use" or "used" appears it is preceded by "didn't." I think that's relevant. Thanks for explaining your argument in a bit more detail. It does seem possible that "used to" should be considered one word, but I didn't understand that from your post. Don't dictionaries list some phrases as well as single words? And I'm not sure about the rest of your argument: even if "used to" is a single word, why can't it inflect like other verbs in English (which are also single words)?
    – sumelic
    Aug 17 '16 at 8:44

"That's money in their pockets that they didn't used /use to get".

Only ".. that they didn't use to get" is correct. The uncertainty probably arises because "used to" is pronounced with a single /t/ and hence is homophonous with the "use to" in “they didn’t use to get”.

The aspectual verb "use" has no present tense, only infinitival and past forms, so although the form "use" appears to be a present tense form, it is in fact the infinitival form which is only used in negatives and with inversion: "they didn’t use to get"; "did they use to get"? Note that the auxiliary verb “do” requires the verb that follows it to be an infinitive, hence “use”, not “used”.

There is the added complication that "use" can be a lexical verb or an auxiliary one, though the books tell us that many speakers treat it as a lexical one. I suspect that’s due to the unacceptability for many people of the auxiliary use found in, for example, %"Smoking usedn’t to be allowed" and %"Used he to smoke"?

Lexical Use (infinitival verb-form and do-support required in negatives and questions):

"they used to get".

"they didn’t use to get".

"Did they use to get"?

Auxiliary Use (past tense verb-form, no do-support required):

"they used to get".

%"they usedn’t to get".

%"used they to get"?

(Note: % = grammatical in some dialects only)

  • They didn't USE to get? What did they USE the money for? Used is past tense in verb form. Used to is the correct way!
    – Tim
    Aug 16 '16 at 16:11
  • 2
    @Tim The base verb is "use", so that is clearly the infinitive. Any verb following an auxiliary has to be in the infinitive form. Since "did" is an auxiliary verb, it follows that it must be the infinitive "use", not the past tense "used".
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 16:23

The original text was correct: the proposed 'correction' is incorrect.

"Used" is past tense, so it is needed here. It is so hard to say though, that the 'd' is often "swallowed" when spoken, so many don't even know it's supposed to be there.

  • 3
    The past tense in the compound ("didn't use to") is taken over by "did", though. "Use" reverts to the infinitive, not the past tense. Aug 16 '16 at 10:50
  • 1
    @TimPederick I liked your "used shampoo" / "didn't use shampoo" example - except that the word "used" in the OP's text isn't using "used" in the "usage" sense. See JavaLatte's answer ell.stackexchange.com/a/100682/36355 Aug 16 '16 at 11:26
  • 1
    Huh. I was not aware that this was so controversial! Etymologically, it is the same: the thing I use is my usual, my customary usage, and the thing I always used to do. Garner's may accept "used to" as fixed, but I take comfort from the fact that I'm not American and feel no shame in ignoring Garner's Modern American Usage. ;-) Aug 16 '16 at 12:04
  • 3
    I don't agree. It should be "didn't use to". The verb is "use" (not "used"), so that is its infinitival form. Any verb following an auxiliary like "did" has to be in the infinitive form, and hence it should be "use" not "used".
    – BillJ
    Aug 16 '16 at 12:50

Simple, remember when you use 'did' the verb should be in present tense.

So, "Did not use" is correct phrase.

Similarly ---

  • I did not handle it properly--- (wrong: not handled)
  • I did not give it to him ------(wrong: gave)
  • Making it simple was my target. I generally look for simple answers, the same I wanted to give to others.
    – Srekk
    Aug 18 '16 at 21:07
  • @Alan Carmack - Does this site has any clause that says answer should not be repeated. Not sure what is the concern. I was genuine in my answer.
    – Srekk
    Aug 18 '16 at 21:20

Neither: instead, change the target of the negation

Because "used to" is an idiomatic expression which does not, otherwise, reflect current usage over the verb "use" except when used atomically as such an expression (see @JavaLatte's excellent answer, including for the appropriate direct negation form), my usual recommendation is to avoid the controversy between whether or not to change the tense and instead to change the structuring:

Didn't used to get

easily becomes

Used to not get

This is also, in a sense, more overall correct. While "use" is a verb, in its idiomatic form it is not actually the main verb of the sentence. Instead, "get" is. "Used to" is instead an adverbial time marker that stands in for, essentially "in the past." It sets when they did or did not "get." So the negation applying to "get" is more appropriate.


In the past they did not get it.


Didn't in the past get it.

Hopefully the awkwardness if not outright incorrectness of the second phrasing by comparison to the first becomes more immediately apparent when using something other than the "used to" idiom. Personally, I find "didn't used to" along with "didn't used to" to both be similarly awkward, regardless of which one might be regarded as correct.

With this recommendation, the sentence would have improved in overall clarity:

That's money in their pockets that they used to not get.

I would also agree with the portion of @JavaLatte's answer covering "used not to," as it is definitely preferable to my ear and sense of structure than either of the forms using "didn't" if the intent is to negate the sense of past tense rather than the main verb of the sentence. But the related structuring is also, by degrees, relatively more archaic in tone.

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