167: When to use the informal contraction 'useta'

And when can 'used to' be substituted by 'would.

Transcript

Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 167th episode.

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A few days ago I made a post on the English Assembly Facebook page passing along a trick to help with the usage of "used to" vs. "would" when talking about the habitual past. You see, sometimes used to and would are interchangeable, but not always. This trick, which I found on Cambridge's Grammar and Beyond website, notes that if I can add the word usually to the sentence, I can use either used to or would to express the habitual past. The habitual past includes things that occurred regularly in the past, but don't occur regularly anymore.

Let's look at an example. I can say either

When I was a kid, my mother used to (useta) read to me every night.

or

When I was a kid, my mother would read to me every night.

However, I can't substitute would in the sentence

My mother used to (useta) be a librarian.

If I said

My mother would be a librarian.

it sounds like I am saying the first part of a conditional. I expect an if statement to follow.

My mother would be a librarian if she didn't need a special degree for it.

That sentence has an entirely different meaning from the original My mother used to be a librarian.

Thanks again Cambridge Grammar and Beyond for pointing out that little tip. I thought it was pretty interesting, but let's get on to the pronunciation part of this podcast.

If you've been listening very closely, you may have noticed that I've been using two different pronunciations of used to. When I've been saying the phrase in isolation, I've been pronouncing it much more clearly, using what we call the citation form. The citation form of a word is what the dictionaries show. When I've been saying the phrase within a sentence, I have been pronouncing it as the informal contraction useta. Listen to the sentences again:

When I was a kid, my mother used to read to me every night.
My mother used to be a librarian.

This transition from used to to useta includes three changes: the z sound changes to the s sound, the d sound is dropped completely, and the oo sound of the word to changes to schwa. After doing all of that, used to becomes useta. Repeat that after me: useta.

Let's try a few sentences. I'll leave time for you to repeat after me, and if you want, you can also try to figure out which of these sentences can have used to substituted by would.

Tom used to (useta) be a vegetarian.
Paul used to (useta) eat meat.
Sherry used to (useta) be the youngest person in our book club.
We used to (useta) pick fresh apples every fall.
When I lived in Florida, I used to (useta) go snorkeling every weekend.

Which sentences could use would?

I can say Paul used to (useta) or would usually eat meat.
I can say We used to (useta) or would usually pick fresh apples every fall.
I can say When I lived in Florida, I used to (useta) or would usually go snorkeling every weekend.

I can't say Tom would be a vegetarian. or Sherry would be the youngest person in the book club.

The discussion of the pronunciation of used to doesn't stop here, however. No, I'm sorry, it does get a little more complicated. You see, we still have the main verb to use, with the meaning of how something was accomplished, as in what was used to do something. This usage of to use can then be followed by an infinitive. This means that we can end up with used to with an entirely different meaning than is used for the habitual past. What am I talking about? Think of these sentences:

Glasses are used to help people see better.
Assessments are used to place students in appropriate classes.
DNA evidence was used to convict the woman.

In those sentences, the verb plus infinitive was not reduced to the same extent as the informal contraction useta. When I'm not creating the habitual past, the z sound and d sound of the verb used remain. The oo sound of the word to can still be reduced to schwa, however. Listen to the sentences again:

Glasses are used to help people see better.
Assessments are used to place students in classes.
DNA evidence was used to convict the woman.

If you want to keep it simpler, you can use the used t+schwa pronunciation for all circumstances, including the habitual past. It is probably the safer pronunciation to use until you get comfortable with the informal contraction useta form. The advantage of the informal contraction is that it can help your rhythm of spoken English, and good rhythm will help you sound more fluent.

Now let's review, one last time, the useta sentences from earlier; use whichever pronunciation you're more comfortable with. I'll be using the useta form:

Tom used to (useta) be a vegetarian.
Paul used to (useta) eat meat.
Sherry used to (useta) be the youngest person in the book club.
We used to (useta) pick fresh apples every fall.
When I lived in Florida, I used to (useta) go snorkeling every weekend.

Got it? Good.

I started this episode by mentioning the English Assembly Facebook page. If you're a Facebook user and haven't seen our page yet, just go to Facebook.com/EnglishAssembly. We share tips on all aspects of learning and teaching English, not just pronunciation. And we like to add little word puzzles and fun things like that from time to time as well. I'd love to see you there!

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