Tim Leonard sent along the Nov. 2 User Friendly strip, with a question:
For me, "didn't used to be" is obligatory, but awkward. I Googled "didn't use to be" and found this page in which several people assert that only "didn't use to be" is correct, with a supporting analysis (but no statistical data).
So I counted Googlehits and got:
"didn't used to be"/"didn't use to be" (with region = UK): 1220000/96400 = ~13
"didn't used to be"/"didn't use to be" (with region = US): 16300000/2340000 = ~7
That was a relief, since only the first choice is grammatical for me. But the second choice is much too common to be simply an error. Do you have any light to shed on it?
The forum assertions that Tim links to seem to be suggesting that use should be treated like e.g. try in
… tried to be …
… didn't try to be …
The analogy seems plausible, but it's clear that a large majority of English speakers and writers don't see it that way.
The key insight here, I think, is that "used to" has been sort of part-way re-analyzed as an aspectual auxiliary, usually pronounced [ˈjus.tə] and sometimes written "useta". The "to" part has been incorporated into this new verb, so that "used to be" is no longer "used [to be]" but rather "[used to] be", where "used to" is just the way to render the word [ˈjus.tə] in standard spelling, just as "want to" and "going to" are the ways to write wanna and gonna.
One factor that may be involved in this process is that [ˈjus.tə] can be a reduced pronunciation for both "used to" and "use to". So when someone wants to render "It didn't [ˈjus.tə] be" in standard spelling, they may be tempted to spell the verb as "used to", even if their internal grammar represents the form as "use to".
However, I can testify that my internal grammar doesn't have any analysis involving a verb use in any of these forms. The first piece of evidence is from pronunciation. The final consonant of the genuine verb use is voiced, so that a careful pronunciation of "… (didn't) use to …" should be [ˈjuz.tu], and similarly [ˈjuzd.tu] for "… used to …". But both of these are out of the question for me.
This might just show that I've re-lexicalized this usage as a different verb use with the pronunciation [ˈjus] (like the noun). But this "verb" would be seriously defective:
*He uses to like spinach.
*He may use to like spinach.
*Could he use to like spinach?
And it wouldn't allow any immediately following adverbs (or even parentheticals or filled pauses):
*She used clearly to like spinach.
*She used, I think, to like spinach.
*She used uh to like spinach.
In other words, at least for me, "used to" (in its aspectual sense) is just a word. Specifically, a verb with very restricted distribution.
What about the 10% or so of English speakers who prefer to write "… didn't use to …"?
There are two obvious possibilities. One is that their internal analysis is different, and "used to" really does involve the preterite form of a verb use. The other is that their internal grammar is the same as mine (and Tim's), but their attempts to make sense of the conventional spelling (and historical source) for "used to" lead them to the artificial spelling "didn't use to".
My money would be on option two.