I should of used have…

This is Lizi Richards’ second blog post for the MA course Non-standard English:

While browsing through my Twitter feed a few weeks ago, the following tweet appeared in my feed:

The forty responses, forty-two retweets and two hundred and forty-nine likes suggest that many other Twitter users agreed.

It seems that there are few usage problems that raise the hackles of the public quite as much as the usage of of instead of have. It is, however, not such a new usage problem as may first appear. Merriam-Webster provides evidence for could of dating back to 1777 and Professor Tieken has found evidence of it appearing in a diary entry dating from 1785. It does appear, though, that public awareness of this usage problem is increasing.

When Professor Tieken undertook her survey to gauge attitudes towards certain usage problems, as part of the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, back in 2012, she included “I could OF gone to that party”, inspired by a colleague whose teenage daughter had “been highly surprised to learn that of [in the sentence] was not a preposition but an auxiliary verb”.[1] Responses to the survey included one commenter who stated that  could of was an “execrable abomination” and the results confirmed that informants felt the most strongly about could of gone out of all three sentences (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2013: 7, 9).

As part of my MA assignment for the Non-Standard English course, I carried out a survey with the aim of exploring, firstly, if there was a difference in attitudes between native and non-native speakers to five specific usage problems and, secondly, if these were influenced by the variety of English which informants predominantly spoke. Knowing the strength of feeling surrounding could of, I included the sentence I could of gone to the party, but I was tired in my survey.  Would people still be getting terribly upset by this or was my Twitter feed a bastion of grammar pedants?

The results did not disappoint. As with the 2012 survey, this was the sentence that provided the strongest responses. Irrespective of whether the informant was a native or non-native speaker of English, over 50 percent of the 86 responses viewed using could of as ‘unacceptable under any circumstances’. The option that received the next highest number of responses (informants were able to check multiple options for each sentence) was ‘acceptable in informal speech’, perhaps reflecting the belief that could of is a usage problem stemming from connected speech. Based on my extremely unrepresentative data sample, more native speakers of American English (AmE) viewed it as acceptable than native British English (BrE) speakers: 66% to 37% respectively. Where non-native speakers are concerned, 33% of non-native speakers of BrE considered could of acceptable in informal speech compared to 36% of those who use AmE.

Informants were also invited to comment, and this sentence received the most comments – 14 in total. Some were more descriptive, pointing out that this was a result of connected speak. Some though, as in Professor Tieken’ 2012 survey, clearly felt strongly about it. Their comments included:

“This is awful” —  “This one makes me angry!!!” — “Heinous” — “Oh, this one annoys me a lot when I see it”.

Based on the 2012 survey, my 2018 one, and Twitter, it appears that could of, should of, and would of are not only becoming more widespread, but are also becoming one of the usage problems that make the blood boil!

[1] Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, 2013. Studying Attitudes to English Usage. English Today 116,29 (4), 3-12. p.5


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