One of my (British) colleagues the other day mentioned that his sixteen-year-old daughter was very much surprised to learn that of in could of was not a preposition but an auxiliary verb. (For clarity’s sake, the girl’s father is a linguist and she herself is skilled in other languages than just English).
In the discussion that followed, it was suggested (by another linguist) that this was a problem at the level of phonology. I think it only becomes a problem at the level of writing, when writers are confronted with the fact that could of should be spelled as could’ve (or even could have).
Urbandictionary.com labels users of could of “uneducated”, and even “idiots”, but that is hardly the case with the girl referred to above. So what is going on here? Is the usage the result of the failure of grammar teaching (and I don’d mean “correct grammar” here) in British schools? Since when do we find could of in writing, and is it true, as Urbandictionary suggests, that should of is “slightly less common”?
Here is an example from the novel For the Sake of Elena, by Elizabeth George (1992) in which could of is used to typify the language of a local speaker (from Madingley, a village near Cambridge) as non-standard:
- Girl could of been hit then, all right (p. 307).
- If I’d of had the foggiest idea … (14-year old Leah)
- he’d like to of given (16-year old Rachel).
An earlier is example of should of but with a negative is from the novel Looking for Mr Goodbar by Judith Rossner, from 1975:
- “Ah, that’s okay,” he said. “I shouldn’t of jumped on you. …” (p. 201 of my 1976 Simon & Schuster pocket book edition).
The speaker is a Vietnam veteran working in a garage.
And here comes another one, from Marilyn French’s novel Our Father (1994), in which Aldo, the chauffeur, is made to say:
- “I’d of been glad to come up and help, Ronnie” (p. 145).