Thursday, May 13, 2010

Did I "used to" do it or am I "used to doing it"? (Part I)

I came across a question on a Facebook page that shall remain nameless (although it was started by a Girl who likes Grammar) and thought I'd cock-a-roach it. For those of you not lucky enough to live in Hawaii, to "cock-a-roach" something means to "surreptitiously steal" something while the other person is not looking, like one of those little buggahs that my wife found in the cereal box a couple of days ago. (You should've heard the cussing. It was so cute.) For example: "Some knucklehead cock-a-roached my seat at the bar while I was in the Little Boys room."

"Used to" is a lovely little word that I find myself using more and more as my beard gets grayer and grayer. As in:
  • I used to be able to touch my toes.
  • I didn't use to have to wake up three times a night to pee. (Which is why the guy was able to cock-a-roach my bar stool.)
  • I used to have a 401-k. Now my kid has braces.
I call it the helping verb for when "that ship has sailed". It is a helping verb like can or will, so it is always followed by the base form of a verb. (The base form is the form that you find in the dictionary.) However, it has a couple of unique features. First, it is always used in the past form to express things that were done in the past. It does not have a present form. Second, in the question and negative forms, you must use did.
  • What sports did you use to play?
  • I didn't use to like mushrooms.
Notice that in the question and negative forms, used to becomes didn't use to and Did you use to? The past tense ~ed disappears, just like had to becomes Did you have to and didn't have to. Because this is primarily a conversational device, the weird written pattern is not well-known (or needed, for that matter). However, it is one more piece of trivial information that keeps pushing that million-dollar idea out of my head and keeps me beholden to the credit card companies.

Now that the truly geeky information is out of the way, let's get to the still-geeky but much-more-important nuts and bolts: The two main uses of used to.

1. To show something that happened in the past, but no longer does

This is the most common usage, especially for those longer in the tooth than others. It expresses the idea that we no longer participate in that activity or can successfully accomplish the same feat.
  • I used to be able to do a double-twisting front 1 1/2 from the three-meter board, but all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't drag that out of me again.
If you use used to, you should not include another time expression, like when I was in college or twenty years ago. It's redundant because used to already carries the idea of in the past. If you want to say when, just use the simple past tense.
  • When I was in college, I could do a double-twisting front 1 1/2 from the three-meter board.
You should also not use used to with length-of-time expressions (for ten years) or for the recent past (last month). In this form, used to is often followed by a big ol' but. (Not the badonk-a-donk kind. This is a family blog.) This is to explain why the action no longer occurs or why the situation no longer exists. One common error is to say "but I don't anymore." Well, duuuuuhhhhhhhh. That's what used to means. Tell me something I don't know.
  • I used to enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon of football watching, but then I got married. (The guys know what I'm talking about.)
  • I used to be a normal football fan, but then I discovered Fantasy Football.
2. To show a past habit

This is very similar to the first usage except that you add some sort of frequency, like twice a week or every summer. This expresses the idea that the frequency has decreased, but the activity still continues. (There is an obvious example about marital relations pre- and post-children, but again, this is a family blog. And it assumes that frequency still applies.) For example:
  • I used to go to the gym every day after work, but now I only get there once or twice a week. (Don't mock me. For all you know, this could be true.)
I hope you've enjoyed our little journey through the wonderland that is helping verbs. However, the explanation for be used to will have to wait for another day. The dog won't walk himself and that diaper ain't gettin' any fresher.

(Something to ponder: I used to have a social life. Now I have a blog.)

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