Could of?

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).

Could of and should of are not the only variants of this construction, as this quotation from The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998:75):

  • If I’d of had the foggiest idea … (14-year old Leah)
  • he’d like to of given (16-year old Rachel).

My own copy of the book.

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.

the version I read

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).

Any thoughts on this usage will be very welcome, and please also fill in the acceptability poll below. 

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4 Responses to Could of?

  1. Alison says:

    Hi Ingrid,
    I half suspect this might particularly common in Australia, though I have no empirical support for that! Also, I wasn’t able to fill out the form, because my answer would be more something like … weeeeelllll, I wouldn’t ever use it myself, but I wouldn’t die of horror if I saw it used by a young (ahem … younger) person in e.g. netspeak ….

    • This is an interesting thought. One of the respondents wrote the following, which confirms what you thing:

      I am an English and Drama high school teacher in Australia and I hear this use of ‘of’ rather than ‘have’ far too often. I would not use it myself, but it is quite common to hear teenagers use it. I try to correct my students, however, most of the time they don’t understand what was incorrect about what they had said.(or don’t care)

      So I suppose that would a good lead for further investigation.

  2. Lottie says:

    Maybe of interest…the document by Poulson, Radnor and Turner-Bisset (1996:40) includes verbal testimony made by an English (State school) teacher in reference to practices of correcting ‘of’ in written work.

  3. Thanks, Lottie, this is very helpful! I found the full reference to this article:

    Poulson, L., Radnor, H. and Turner-Bisset, R. (1996), “From policy to practice: language education, English teaching and curriculum reform in secondary schools in England”, Language and Education, 10 (1), 33-46.

    (For those interested in reading this article: this copy is not available at Leiden, nor is the journal available electronically for issues older than 1997. Should anyone have a (scanned) copy for me, I would be most grateful.)

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