When we say would have, could have, should have, must have, might have, may have and ought to have, we often put some stress on the modal auxiliary and none on the have. We may show this in writing by abbreviating to could’ve, must’ve, etc. (Would can contract further by merging with the subject: We would have → We’d’ve.)
Unstressed ’ve is phonetically identical (/əv/) to unstressed of: hence the widespread misspellings would of, could of, should of, must of, might of, may of, and ought to of. Negative forms also appear: shouldn’t of, mightn’t of, etc. This explanation – that misanalysis of the notorious schwa lies behind the error – has general support among linguists.
The mistake dates to at least 1837, according to the OED, so it has probably been infuriating pedants for almost 200 years. Common words spelt incorrectly provoke particular ire, sometimes accompanied by aspersions cast on the writer’s intelligence, fitness for society, degree of evolution, and so on. But there’s no need for any of that.
Usage authorities unanimously call it a mistake, though some allow for its deliberate use (more on that below). Many associate it specifically with children and other less educated writers. For example, Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage finds it a practice of “semiliterate writers”, and accepts no excuses: “the word is have, or a contraction ending in ’ve, and it should be written so.”
Merriam-Webster’s Pocket Guide to English Usage says “children and those who have not completed grammar school may have an excuse for making this mistake, but most others do not.” What’s meant by that most is what we’ll now consider: that the misspellings don’t always indicate carelessness or relative illiteracy.
The Columbia Guide to Standard American English finds room for the anomalous forms as a stylistic device:
substituting of for ’ve in writing can be an example of eye dialect, which deliberately misspells words to suggest Nonstandard or dialectal speech. . . . The important thing is to correct it when it isn’t intentional.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage elaborates on this, saying writers use the spelling “to create an unlettered persona”. It cites several examples, including a “he’d of got me” from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who “used the spelling to represent the speech of a woman who was not overeducated”, as MWDEU politely puts it.
Over the last number of months, I’ve seen the non-standard of-form in several books by authors who presumably knew what they were doing:
“That sure could of been true,” says the clerk at the Salon City store (Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild)
Yorkin cringed. “Me. Pierce told me to clip him. I shouldn’t of done it by the drop.” (James Ellroy, L. A. Confidential)
“I’d of thought Mrs Herman was the last person in the world to—” (Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse)
“I wouldn’t of flagged that taxi if the For Hire flag hadn’t been up.” (Dashiell Hammet, ‘Fly Paper’, in The Big Knockover and other stories)
“‘F he’d of been a man I’d of seen him in hell ‘fore I’d of gave it to him.” (Dashiell Hammett, ‘Corkscrew’, in The Big Knockover and other stories)
…the marshal hadn’t taken any of the Collinsons’ property though of course he might of. (Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse)
“She must of really gotten knocked out.” (Jonathan Lethem, Girl in Landscape)
“He’s not around now, or you’d of met him.” (Jonathan Lethem, Girl in Landscape)
“And it wouldn’t of mattered to me whether you did or did not like women.” (George Pelecanos, Drama City)
“All bloody and mucked up, with figuring away aboard the Vénus, when two minutes would of changed it.” (Patrick O’Brian, The Mauritius Command)
It would of done no good gettin’ somebody else te scratch it for me because that was a sin as well. (Frances Molloy, No Mate for the Magpie)
‘Oh Miz, oh Miz,’ he moaned, rubbing his leg. ‘You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.’ (Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar)
‘I wouldn’t of thought of such a thing in a million years.’ (George Pelecanos, The Big Blowdown)
‘If you hadn’t of stepped in the middle of everything—’ (George Pelecanos, The Big Blowdown)
‘Been calling all night. Four, five calls, must of been.’ (Laurence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard)
‘You might not of noticed yesterday but he’s only got one hand.’ (Ron Rash, The Cove)
‘If you’d gotten into a fight with that swordarm of yours, there’d of been bodies all over’ (Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima, Lone Wolf and Cub, vol. 2: The Gateless Barrier, translated by Dana Lewis)
Similar phrases appear in Cormac McCarthy’s novels, but I neglected to take notes and I don’t have his books to hand. [EDIT: Here are a few from McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, all used in dialogue:
They might as well of, he said.
Otherwise I’d of been born in Alabama.
...it was a mistake not to of told you.
But if it hadnt of been for her I wouldnt of made it.
He might well could of
The last one also serves as a nice example of a double modal.]
Searching the Corpus of Contemporary American English for the string would of [v*], where [v*] is a verb, produces the graph below. It shows that the of-form’s predominant setting is fiction, usually “would of been”, and it also shows up in transcription of actual speech, as in the academic and newspaper instances. You can click through the image to view examples, sources, and further information at COCA.
The magazine data are false positives (“we’d have a better chance of achieving a breakthrough in quantum gravity than we would of figuring out how to reliably connect with teenagers”), but you get an idea of the construction’s low frequency and particular genre distribution.
Plotting could of [v*] usages over time, using the related Corpus of Historical American English, suggests the construction may have peaked. Or is that just wishful thinking? Again, you can click on this graph for details, or open it in another tab.
Of 1000 occurrences of could/would of in the Oxford English Corpus, about 850 are from “representations of direct speech (mostly from the Fiction domain, but also from interviews and courtroom transcripts)”. That leaves 150 genuine written instances of could/would of, compared with 4 million examples of standard could/would have. I can’t help picturing a global battalion of editors keeping it firmly at bay.
The of-form is not frequent in edited prose, but it appears quite often in casual writing and it has been around a while. Does that count for much? MWDEU says its prolonged use has “not made it respectable”, and recommends avoiding it – including in transcriptions of real speech, since ’ve serves the purpose equally well. I agree, and I think if someone explicitly says of, and stresses it, that might warrant a “[sic]”.
Regular readers know I like to make room for literary effect and poetic licence, but I have never warmed to this mistake. Every time I see it – be its use naive or intentional – I want to fix it. Authenticity of dialect and character are all well and good, but I think the main effect of the deliberate usage in edited prose is further uncertainty and error (not to mention irritation, in some quarters). What do you think?