Sunday, March 11, 2018

Auxiliary Forms

Once, after teaching a session on auxiliary verbs to an ESL class, I remarked to a friend on the construction "might could", which I take to be a southern idiom for what another might express as "maybe could" or "might be able to". The friend, who grew up in Virginia, came back with "used to would". I had never heard this, but another ESL teacher, a native of Tennessee, said that she had. I take to "used to would" to be a slight modification of "used to"; but whether it strengthens or weakens it, I don't know.

This past week I was interested to find to "used to could" in The Pioneers. I suppose that "could then" or "once could" would convey the same meaning. Natty Bumppo, who uses the expression, is represented as a native of New York, therefore distinctly a northerner. I think that Mark Twain was mostly correct about Cooper as a novelist, but I imagine that Cooper knew how people spoke in upstate New York as 1800 approached.


  1. Interesting. Well, they don't say it any more in Cooper's Cooperstown... But you can still hear things like "might could" and "used to would" and "can't never could" down South. Some people say them in a humorous, half-conscious way, though...

    1. "Might could" I have encountered only in fiction, I think, "used to would" only when my friend from Virginia mentioned it. But then though I live south of the Mason-Dixon line, I've never really lived in the South, hardly visited it.

    2. Many of those phrases are now part of Southern humor, I find, at least among the college-educated. So there are some who use them naturally and some who use them consciously. I went to high school deep in the Carolina mountains and heard many interesting phrases. And that's probably where I picked up "I reckon."