Reply to "Didn't have to or needn't have pp"

Gustavo, Contributor posted:

In the States, I think we would be more inclined to say " ... so I didn't have to (study/prepare) for it last night after all!".

That brings up another issue I had in mind. I remember that once upon a time ESL books presented "needn't have + past participle" as the exclusive form to express that, even if unnecessary, the action was performed, while "didn't need to" (or "didn't have to") was said to be used to express that, being unnecessary, the action was not performed. Nowadays, both "needn't have + pp" and "didn't need to" (or "didn't have to") can be used to express the former idea [. . .].

This thread has had a lot of very interesting developments. I appreciate everyone's contributions, and would like to express my special thanks to DocV's native BrE-speaking informant.

Regarding the distinction between "needn't have" and "didn't have to," I have enjoyed reading everyone's observations. I can confirm that we do indeed use either one in the case where the thing that needn't have been done was done.

Ahmed_btm's point (and by extension, Alexander Longman's point) that stress makes a difference with "didn't have to" is also an important point. When we use "didn't have to" in reference to something that occurred, we do stress "have."

There is one point that has not explicitly come up yet which I think is worth mentioning. In cases where the action did NOT take place, it is NOT possible to use "needn't have" to refer to it. Only one of the following dialogues is correct:

A: Why didn't you review for the test last night?
B: I didn't have to. The test isn't today.

A: Why didn't you review for the test last night?
B: I needn't have. The test isn't today.

In each case, A's question presupposes that B did not review for the test last night. The reason "I needn't have" is an incorrect reply is that it  presupposes the opposite -- that B did review -- and the two presuppositions cannot both be true.

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