Friday, August 3, 2012

A Light in the Darkness XV

Today's grammar blog is about “could have”, “should have”, and “would have”. I was thinking about this subject, and I realized I could of written about it last week.

Did you see the mistake? It appeared in that last sentence. You should of seen it.

There it was again!

In many instances, I find that writers are using “of” in the place where “have” should be. From what I have observed, this probably occurs because people have neglected to read the blog entry on contractions and are writing what they think they hear when people say “could've”.


“Captain, I could of shot you with my phaser, but I didn't because you're the captain.”

“Bones, you couldn't shoot the broad side of a Bird of Prey.”

Dammit, Jim! I'm a doctor, not a marksman!

This exchange would likely earn Doctor McCoy a Vulcan nerve pinch if it were written out as above. However, in speech, it would sound like McCoy had actually used the correct expression, written below.


“Captain, I could've shot you with my phaser, but I didn't because you're the captain.”

“Bones, you couldn't shoot the broad side of a Bird of Prey.”

The same thing happens with “should've” and “would've”. They sound like “should of” and “would of”, but those are not proper phrases.

In these cases, the word “have” is being used as an auxiliary verb. There are not many of those in English, but “have” is one of the most common. This is due to its use in the present perfect and past perfect tenses. For the “could have” and friends, this might seem strange. Where, you might be asking, is the participle then? The difficulty is that the the actual past participle is the word that changes, the word that is not usually the one messed up. In our earlier example, the past participle was the word “shot”.


“I never would of known about the Romulan plot without your help.”

Plot to disguise yourself as a bearded pimp?


“I never would have known about the Romulan plot without your help.”

The verb “known” is the past participle in this sentence. It is the verb actually carrying the weight of the sentence, the one actually forming the predicate that keeps this from being a mere fragment. But it is not likely to be mistaken. Writers are more likely to get the past participle right, the past participle being the word they are actually thinking about. But those little auxiliaries can screw up your sentence.

“Of” is a preposition. It is a very powerful sort of word. Most of the time, when a word is paired with a preposition, that preposition makes that word its bitch. To put it another way, the word becomes the “object of the preposition”. If you take your predicate and make it the object of a preposition instead, your whole sentence just implodes (and you might even upset the space-time continuum).

So don't do it.

Get the hell out of the way, Bones! She's a ... preposition!

It is fairly simple to remember because there is no “could of” phrase that means anything useful. It is possible to write a correct sentence where those two words appear side-by-side as above, but they are not being as auxiliaries to your verb. (I could, of course, write a correct sentence with “could” and “of” side-by-side as an example, but why would I do that?)

Until next week, keep your grammar candles burning!


  1. That is the oddest mistake I have ever seen. People actually do that?

  2. Weird, yeah? I've seen it enough to warrant a candle.

  3. Yeah. People actually do that. WRITERS actually do that. It boggles the mind...

  4. Oh yes...lots of people do it...and it's one of my pet hates!
    But who am I to question this? I taught French ...didn't realise I'd have to teach the pupils English first!
    Hugs xx


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