The transition from used to to useta
Informal contractions are born when speakers find easier ways to pronounce words. Learn about the transformation of the phrase used to in casual, spoken English.
Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 97th episode.
Today's topic is the little phrase "used to." Used to describes a past habit or regular activity. Examples include:
I used to drive to work, but now I take the bus.
She used to drink coffee, but now she drinks tea.
Before I go further, let's talk about the two different words spelled u-s-e. There is the verb, to use
, and the noun, a use
. Do you hear the difference? To use
, a use
. To use
is pronounced with a z sound, a use
is pronounced with an s sound
To use, as in
"I use my computer for many things."
A use, as in,
"I no longer have a use for my typewriter."
The phrase used to
, to describe a past habit or activity, is used very frequently by native speakers. Like many words and phrases that occur frequently, the pronunciation has changed over time. This particular phrase seems to have gone through more transformation than most.
Even for native English speakers, three consecutive consonants is difficult to pronounce. In the phrase used to, we have the z sound of the word used, then the d sound of the -ed ending of the word used, then the link into the t sound of the word to. Fully pronounced, it is used to.
Few native speakers attempt to say all of those sounds in casual speech. For this phrase, first the d sound in the middle gets dropped. Used to becomes used to. Then, to simplify further, the z sound becomes unvoiced. Used to becomes u*se to.
At this point, the phrase used to has become useto.
In connected speech, the word to, t-o, is a function word. It is usually reduced to ta. Here is the word to in some sentences. In these sentences it's not connected to the word used:
I'm going to the park
I like to ski.
I'll repeat both of those. Listen for the ta:
I'm going to the park
I like to ski.
Now let's get back to the phrase used to. After dropping the d sound and changing the z sound to an s sound, we were at useto. In connected speech, however, the word to is reduced to ta, and we have the complete modification of the phrase used to, to the common current, yet informal, pronunciation of useta, useta.
Here it is in a few sentences:
I useta live in Wisconsin.
I useta have a dog.
I useta sleep until noon on Saturdays.
I consider the word useta to be an informal contraction. This is the same category as the word couldja a few weeks ago. Informal contractions are not normally written (though they are in the transcripts for this episode, so I can show you what I'm saying.) Informal contractions are very commonly spoken, unless, of course, you are giving a formal presentation.
Here is a side grammar note that I find interesting. When Betty Azar explains the use of the phrase used to in her third edition of Fundamentals of English Grammar (page 52), she points out that in negative or question sentences, it is possible to drop -ed ending of the phrase. She then notes, "Both forms (spelled used to or use to in questions and negatives) are possible. There is no consensus among English language authorities on which is preferable."
Ms. Azar's example sentences are:
Did you use to live in Paris? (both with and without the ed ending)
I didn't use to drink coffee. (again, both with and without the ed ending)
Ms. Azar didn't mention if pronunciation may be leading this spelling change or not, but I wouldn't be surprised if it is. Words can change based on pronunciation, and I think this one may be doing exactly that.
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Thanks for listening.
About the ESL/ELL Teacher
Mandy has been teaching ESL, pronunciation and accent reduction since 2005 at Seattle Learning Academy, an English language school in Seattle, Washington, USA. She uses her experience with intermediate to advanced students to create the topics that most affect students living and working in the United States and can help them communicate better and more clearly.