If there’s one part of the UK that does nostalgia better than any other, it’s Yorkshire, as the famous Monty Python Yorkshiremen sketch proves.
We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six in the morning, clean the paper bag, eat a crust of stale bread, go to work down t’ mill, fourteen hours a day, week-in week-out, for sixpence a week, and when we got home our Dad would thrash us to sleep wi’ his belt.
From Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen sketch
Grammar boffins among you will have noticed the three different past tenses in the above passage. The first sentence uses the past simple, ‘we lived’. The second, however, uses the phrase ‘used to’. We use ‘used to’ to write about a regular action or constant state, usually a habit or routine, during a long period in the past. We often use it to talk about our childhood – ‘I used to play out every night.’ We use it for something that is not true for the present. If someone says ‘I used to be a Catholic’, the implication is that they are no longer. A sentence such as ‘I used to play football and I play football now too’ just sounds wrong, even if it is grammatically sound. ‘Used to’ often has a reminiscing or nostalgic quality to it, like the Monty Python sketch. Using ‘would’ to talk about the past also has this quality – this is also especially to talk about habits and routines in the past, such as the Yorkshireman’s habit of thrashing his children to sleep. This is a past form particularly used for storytelling. In speech and informal writing, the ‘would’ is often shortened to ‘d’. In most written work, for the sake of clarity, it is better to write out the whole word, though it is perfectly acceptable to use it with pronoun’s ‘he’d thrash’ in all but the most formal writing.
Notice that in ‘used to’ the ‘s’ is pronounced with an ‘s’ sound, unlike the normal verb ‘use’ in which it is pronouncd as a ‘z’. There’s an odd spelling rule to remember too. In negative statements and questions, even though it is pronounced the same, it is written ‘use to’, not ‘used to’: ‘Did you use to live around here, sir?’ ‘We didn’t use to have that sort of thing in my day, I tell thee.’
Bear that in mind the next time you’re writing about the good old days, or the bad old days, which might be sooner than you think.
Write a Pythonesque description of life in the olden days. If you fancy, use some Yorkshire-isms.