Would of, could of, might of, must of

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)

‘I could of sworn I’d run into you some place before.’ (Carson McCullers, The Member of the Wedding)

Yorkin cringed. ‘Me. Pierce told me to clip him. I shouldn’t of done it by the drop.’ (James Ellroy, L. A. Confidential)

‘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)

‘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)

I’d of liked to be stabbed – and have lashings of red paint.’ (Agatha Christie, Dead Man’s Folly)

‘Never should of married‘ (Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood)

‘See, they must of had them already saddled.’ (Elmore Leonard, The Law at Randado)

‘If I hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years younger.’ (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)

‘Youve never seen anything so mad, the lassie couldnt of known what kind of nut house she was in.’ (Alan Warner, Morvern Callar)

‘If I’d known you five years ago I’d of given it to you.’ (Sara Paretsky, ‘The Maltese Cat’, in Windy City Blues)

‘If you had of been dead, you’d of had a funeral. I only just thought a that now. I’d of went along.’ (Claire Kilroy, The Devil I Know)

‘Maybe you should of shot us when we was far away.’ (Chris Cleave, The Other Hand)

‘If he’d been an animal, he’d of been the runt of the litter and we’d of put him down.’ (Gillian Flynn, Dark Places)

‘And here I’d of sworn…’ He took another try at the coffee cup, registered surprise to find it empty. (James Sallis, Drive)

I’d of thought Mrs Herman was the last person in the world to—’ (Dashiell Hammett, The Dain Curse)

…the marshal hadn’t taken any of the Collinsons’ property though of course he might of. (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)

‘They may of gone,’ he said slowly. (Dashiell Hammett, ‘The Golden Horseshoe’, in The Continental Op)

‘But he must of gone through the house and out front . . .’ (Dashiell Hammett, ‘The Girls with the Silver Eyes’, in The Continental Op)

‘Anybody could of got in them with a ladder.’ (Dashiell Hammett, ‘The Farewell Murder’, in The Continental Op)

‘Well, we would of if she hadn’t put the two X’s to me the same as she done to you’ . . . ‘but if my rod hadn’t of got snagged in my flogger you wouldn’t have seen nothing else.’ (Dashiell Hammett, ‘The Whosis Kid’, in The Continental Op)

‘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)

‘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.’ (Lawrence Block, A Ticket to the Boneyard)

‘Six-thirty or so, you must of just got on your way to Maspeth, guy goes out back with a load of kitchen garbage.’ (Lawrence Block, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse)

‘You might not of noticed yesterday but he’s only got one hand.’ (Ron Rash, The Cove)

‘She has on a pair of bikinis I couldn’t of got into when I was ten years old.’ (Elmore Leonard, Mr. Paradise)

‘We could’ve settled, the city pays out a few bucks, it wouldn’t of cost you a dime.’ (Elmore Leonard, Mr. Paradise)

‘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)

‘It ain’t right I wasn’t there because if I had of been there I would of known.’ (Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find)’The other vics probably would have lived if Lewin hadn’t of made that play.’ (George Pelecanos, Shame the Devil)

I should of thought of that my own self.’ (George Pelecanos, Shame the Devil)

‘If you’d gone in right away, you would of got him, none of this would of happened. . . . I’d of got off! You think I’d of stood around that roadblock for seven hours?’ (Richard Stark, Slayground)

‘If they knew they had a buyer, they might of stayed in business to accommodate you.’ (Ross Macdonald, The Blue Hammer)

‘I wish I could of died instead of him.’ (Ross Macdonald, The Blue Hammer)

He shouldn’t of been near enough . . . (Donal Ryan, ‘Aisling’, in A Slanting of the Sun)

Must of had a heart attack or something!?’ (Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin, Tank Girl One):

Tank Girl One by Hewlett & Martin - must of

Similar phrases appear in Cormac McCarthy’s novels. Here are a few from 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 example also serves as a nice example of a double modal. The [modal]-of construction is used frequently, and effectively, throughout Chris Cleave’s remarkable novel Incendiary:

She was like that was Mena. Philosophical. I’d definitely of killed myself if it hadn’t of been for her.

If you could of looked in my eyes you’d of seen the same thing I shouldn’t wonder.

I wouldn’t of come near you I’d never of let you touch me you should be ashamed.

Most notably in this exchange between two people only one of whom uses it dialectally:

– He would of said something.
– Maybe he wouldn’t have.
Wouldn’t you of?

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?


I’ve come across several more examples in books, and have added them to the collection above. Also, @desktopenglish on Twitter drew my attention to this BBC article that quotes a footballer saying he ‘Shouldn’t of reacted the way I did’.

Update 2:

Medievalist Lucy Allen found the line ‘For methowte I wold not for my life a sen it fallen’ in a 14thC religious text, The Shewings of Julian of Norwich. Translating it as ‘I thought I would not for my life of seen it fall’ [underlines mine], she writes: ‘it’s always fun when you notice something in a medieval text that is a dead ringer for one of the “modern” mistakes that horrify the pearl-clutchers’.

76 Responses to Would of, could of, might of, must of

  1. Harry Lake (age 66, freelance translator since 1972) says:

    You ask what we think. In my case, I think you need hardly ask…

    • Nelida K. says:

      Good for you, Harry! I am a colleague (freelance translator of English, native in Spanish, certified by the State and college-trained) living and working in the Southern Cone of South America. If I had ever written this in any of my classes, I would have been awarded a “fail” without a second thought… However, I have some additional thoughts on the literary use of “of” instead of “have” and I am making a separate comment on it.

  2. marc leavitt says:

    I “would of” done this as a child; in fact, I did it all the time, until my mother, who cared about proper usage, corrected me. Without putting too fine a point on it, the misuse of the preposition for the verb is ubiquitous. The offenders are almost always children, or among older persons, the more casually educated.

    It’s use as a literary device to establish mood and telegraph a character’s status, is a lazy man’s technique; there are better ways.
    That said, I’m pessimistic about eradicating the practice.

  3. I’ve met people who habitually say “would of”, etc — using a clearly enunciated back rounded vowel and not a schwa — and I’d be willing to bet there are dialects where this is more common than it is here. That said, I agree its frequency in fictional dialogue is well out of proportion to the number of people who really speak that way.

  4. Is it more noteworthy when it transfers into writing?

  5. Could it even be an issue, dare I say, for non-pedants when it transfers into writing, maybe journalists, teachers of other subjects than English (the latter tend to be called pedantic, I’m told, if they mention such things)?

  6. Lane says:

    I read “it has probably been infuriating pedants for almost 200 years” as “It has probably been infuriating parents” the first time. I corrected this on my 6th-grader’s homework last night. He half-knows the rule; I highlight the mistake and tell him he must fix it without saying how. He looked for a second and said “Is it ‘have’?” So we got there in the end.

  7. Since “have” has no semantic value here but is purely syntactic, I always find its replacement by “of” rather charming. But then, I’m an ignorant Brit who grew up in Sarf Lunnon.

  8. Shaun Downey says:

    Seeing of written where have should be does jar even if the have is often pronounced like an of… hiho

  9. A while back Lucy Ferriss said she used “would of” and “could of” in a book. Her explanation that she’s going for eye dialect makes a kind of sense, but without the explanation I’d assume it was the author’s error.

    And anyway, I find this kind of eye dialect rather patronizing. The character is pronouncing something just as a speaker of Standard English would, but because they’re uneducated or rustic, they get “of” or “sez” instead of “‘ve” or “says”. As you say, Stan, ‘ve serves the purpose equally well. There are better ways of showing dialectal or uneducated speech.

  10. old-gobbo.pip.verisignlabs.com says:

    Broadly I agree with the overall argument, that it is unnecessary most of the time. However I have heard people say it (in the UK, I have little experience of Ireland): and I have certainly heard a difference between /əv/ and /ɒv/ (though I agree that unstressed there can be little or no difference). It is not merely ‘eye dialect’ (bravo, Beverley Rowe). So I do not accept that it is a useless literary device, and I see no need to fix it. (I see I also disagree with, among others, Mr Leavitt, who, in spite of the fact that he used this ‘misuse’ himself, suggests no ‘better ways’; how does Mr Leavitt feels about “It’s” as a genitive ?) However speaking of unneeded devices:

    a) “I can’t help picturing a global battalion of editors keeping it firmly at bay” – just possibly most people have learnt to write ‘correctly’ – and does this not undercut the assertion in your second paragraph of ‘widespread misspellings’ ?

    b) “Over the last number of months, I’ve seen the non-standard of-form in several books”
    Well, on the face of it, that certainly is a few months, not just since 1996 or 1990 but 1929: but there are older books that I have not got around to reading. What really irks me is “Over the last number of months”. I would be content with ‘over a number of months’, to convey that one has spent some time on this exploration, or ‘over the last few months’, but your phrase is new to me and seems prissy and imprecise at the same time.

  11. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Of course, many of us are familiar w/ the expression, “woulda, coulda, shouda”— kind of the next more devolved generation, (or more kindly), colloquial version of “would of, could of, should of”— a slangy self-admonishing, of sorts, expressing regret for one’s, (or perhaps another’s), failure in not taking appropriate, timely action.

    For better or worse, it’s entered the vernacular, and as I discovered on a quick Web search, frequently comes up in the pop culture world.

    Contemporary R&B singer, Beverley Knight, released her now-signature 2002 breakout hit single, titled “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda”, on her CD “Who Am I”.

    Current popular African-American fiction writer LaJill Hunt penned a fairly recent light and breezy romantic novel, “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda”.

    Dr. Arthur Freeman and Rose DeWolf recently teamed up on a self-help book titled, “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes, and Missed Opportunities”.

    I’m guessing here, but I believe the expression “woulda, coulda, shouda” may have come out of the African-American urban inner-city youth street culture of the ’80s and early ’90s. But I may be totally off-base here.

    ‘Shouda’ perhaps done more research in that regard. ‘Coulda’, but didn’t. Oh well.

    • kitchenmudge says:

      The contractions “woulda, coulda, etc.” have been very common in writing for a long time. I use theme myself, and it’s always understood that the “a” stands for “have”. It’s simply a contraction like any other. Mistaking it for “of’ is a mistake, just a very common one.

  12. stuartnz says:

    Even though I consider myself very relaxed about spelling these days, I do find this one a minor annoyance still. I also wonder if the sheer volume of its usage might not one day lead to its becoming acceptable or standard, as I still think may happen with “loose” for “lose”

  13. Helen says:

    Stan, what I think is this: get it right! I can’t bear it when I see it and I have highly educated, high-performing colleagues who use it in speech and the written word. One of them used to be an English teacher! I’m so glad you wrote about it, I thought it was me being pedantic.

  14. Stan says:

    Harry: I think I can guess.

    Marc: It’s not ubiquitous in my experience, but then we’re all exposed to different kinds of writing and speech. Like you, I don’t believe the mistake can be eradicated; education will remain the remedy.

    Adrian: Maybe there are. I’d be interested to know of dialects where the usage is current or a common variant, and how its speakers came to employ it (and how they spell it).

    Edward: It probably is, if only because it’s more noticeable in writing and because written English is generally held to higher standards than spoken English is.

    Lane: There’s a coincidence. And a good lesson well learned. Letting him figure it out for himself will make a significant difference to recall and understanding, I’d say.

    Beverley: You’re lucky to appreciate it. Maybe I’ll talk myself into finding it charming one day.

    Shaun: It jars with me a bit, too.

    Jonathon: Thanks for the link; I hadn’t read that post. I’d have done the same as her copy editor, or at least fired off an email to query the usage, but she maintains it’s how the character would say it, so fair enough. Quite a few authors use it, but like you I see little gain in it.

    old-gobbo: I wonder how many of the people who say could of etc. pronounce it that way because they think that’s how it’s spelt. Maybe there’s been systematic research on this, but I didn’t look for it.
    I imagine Marc feels about It’s as a genitive much as I (and maybe you) feel about feels in “how does Mr Leavitt feels”: that it’s a typo in a blog comment, and hardly worth fussing over. In published writing, on the other hand, I think it’s worth the fuss.

    Alex: The post title originally included “should of” and was intended to more strongly echo that expression, but I decided to go with a different kind of rhyme.

    Stuart: Maybe one day, but I see no sign that it’s headed for standard status.

    Helen: You have my sympathies! If you’re regularly exposed to it in colleagues’ speech, it might be worth getting used to, though obviously in written communication destined for general consumption, its users should be aware of the error.

  15. Barrie says:

    Your readers might like to know, Stan, that the online OED has a separate entry for ‘of’ as a verb, describing it merely as ‘nonstandard’. It shows the 1837 citation which you mention, but it also has this earlier citation from 1814: ‘I never could of thought that force Could turn affection in its course.’ There is also this from no less a writer than Charlotte Brontë in a letter dated 1853: ‘Had Thackeray owned a son grown or growing up,..would he of spoken in that light way of courses that lead to disgrace and the grave?’

    • Dan Clayton says:

      I see it a lot online and in students’ work and it jars a bit, but in the attempt to kill my inner prescriptivist, I do wonder if I can justify caring about it. Isn’t it another example of grammaticalisation that we’ll just adapt to over time?

    • korystamper says:

      As does Merriam-Webster: “nonstandard
      : have —used in place of the contraction ‘ve often in representations of uneducated speech”

      I don’t know if I like “uneducated speech,” though, and I may send a note to the file about it.

      • Stan says:

        I wonder how often the “uneducated” label appears, and can it be straightforwardly replaced by e.g. “vernacular” or “dialectal”. MWDEU’s “not overeducated” is admirably euphemistic.

        • korystamper says:

          We don’t use “uneducated” as a proper register label, but it is sprinkled throughout usage paragraphs in our dictionaries and in MWDEU. I confess that when I run across it, I wince as if I’ve just rubbed a cut lemon all over a cold sore. I get it–I know why we use it that way–but it still bothers me a bit.

          “Vernacular” might be a less inflammatory substitute, or even just “spoken, informal English.” Hmm.

          The editor responsible for much of MWDEU is the same one who trained me as a lexicographer. “Not overeducated” is classic Gil.

  16. mollymooly says:

    I’m uneasy about eye dialect in general. Using nonstandard spelling to represent *standard* pronunciation by an uneducated speaker strikes me both as cheating in terms of technique and as mockery in terms of politics.

    In addition, as per OP and earlier comments, this particular eye dialect has two extra problems. First, it’s a canonical error rather than an obviously nonce spelling, which confuses the author’s intent. Second, the pronunciation of “of” is the same as that of “-‘ve” only in the weak form, not in the strong or citation form; which creates interference for the reader.

  17. Ian Loveless says:

    It seems like it’s just a common retrieval error caused by the similarity of the way the words sound. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t “have” get used in place of “of” just as frequently, e.g. “He’s the head have marketing”? Corpus?

  18. old-gobbo.pip.verisignlabs.com says:

    Your point about “feels” is exactly mine about “it’s”: there is good and bad pedantry. My objection to Mr Leavitt was not that he started a sentence one way, then changed his mind and forgot to go back, but that he did not suggest what should replace a genuine ‘of – have’ switch’, if that is what one is trying to write – I suppose ‘urv’ would sometimes fit the bill, but it depends on the precise accent. (Incidentally many thanks to Barrie for Charlotte Brontë – could it be a genuine dialect form ? – though whether Irish, Cornish or Yorkshire ….)

    Yes, to most of us ‘should of’ and its mates are irritating: but they are never obscure or misleading. You have yourself argued that it is not a major written problem at the moment; and I suspect that even in speech there are more distressing aspects of the perpetrators’ communication to worry about. Much as I love many Americans, I actually prefer not to listen to most of their accents most of the time – and the same is true of many British accents: while when it comes to what they actually say …. Well, that would bring me back to ‘over the last number of months’, so I had better stop.

    • How sad to go round hating people’s accents. Observe and not judge?

      • old-gobbo.pip.verisignlabs.com says:

        I merely said I preferred not to listen to them most of the time: I would find it very hard to live in the US for instance. But many are in their own right beautiful and effective, even to my cloth ears, in fact some of my uncouth friends are a delight to listen to.

    • Niall says:

      I’m not sure I understand your issue with ‘over the last number of months’. Seems perfectly fine to me, and certainly not prissy. I’d probably use either it or ‘over the last few months’. Sometimes, though, ‘few’ just doesn’t cut it when we want to be imprecise about how many months we are referring to.

  19. Stan says:

    Barrie: Thanks for the additional information. I just have the Shorter OED, and no ready access to the full version on- or offline, so I was unaware of the earlier example. Non-standard is probably the fairest label for the usage (I used it once in the post), but while I’m often fond of non-standard forms, this is one whose charm evades me, at least for now.

    Dan: Another example of grammaticalisation: yes. That we’ll adapt to over time: depends on the person and the time. My own inner prescriptivist resists conversion on some points!

    mollymooly: That’s a good point about confusion over the author’s intent. In books by Dashiell Hammett and Cormac McCarthy, I would feel confident that the anomalous usages are deliberate, however seemingly unnecessary. But I see too many typos and oddities in published books to give the benefit of the doubt by default.

    Ian: It doesn’t seem to work like that. The erroneous of always follows a verb that does most of the semantic work, so the sentence needn’t feel obviously faulty to a learner. It might just seem idiomatic, which is not the case when a verb is inserted incongruously, as in your “He’s the head have marketing”. Someone else might be able to explain this better.

  20. Alan Gunn says:

    When speaking, I say “of” (or sometimes “a”), no doubt because I heard it that way (upstate NY) as a child and it stuck. Trying to change as an adult would be tough. I doubt that anyone has noticed, and if they did they were too polite to comment. I have no idea which version my family members or anyone else for that matter use in speaking. Writing’s different, to be sure.

  21. “Could of” in writing could be used to represent pronunciation, as some people (in UK, at least) do pronounce it with an o sound, rather than schwa. On the other hand, even with a good writer like Fitzgerald it could be a lazy “eye” thing / spelling. Certainly British dialects ( e. g. in newspapers in Norfolk) are often represented with spellings like “wot” for “what” that don’t indicate any real difference from most RP. They make them look more like “dialect”, though.

  22. Eugene says:

    You’ll never see or hear “he’s the head have marketing” because the verb ‘have’ does not sound anything like the preposition ‘of.’ The mis-spelling of ‘could’ve’ as ‘could of’ occurs because the two forms are pronounced the same. Even if your dialect has a different vowel (not schwa) in ‘of,’ the distinction would be lost in unstressed contexts. Like any reduced form, the contraction /’ve/ is by definition unstressed.
    You might think you hear “head’ve marketing” because that would sound exactly like “head of marketing” in fast speech. So the substitution can only go one way, with of written where ‘ve is expected. This looks to me like a written phenomenon (a simple spelling mistake), and I doubt that people can hear others saying ‘could of.’ There’s no difference to hear.

  23. Stan says:

    Jesse: Thanks for letting us know. All antedatings are significant, even the incremental ones!

    Alan: Interesting. I’m glad to hear from someone for whom it’s a feature of their idiolect, if not dialect. In your case it seems to be a variant pronunciation independent of how you’d write or spell it.

    Edward: Now that you mention it, I remember hearing it a few times in the UK. Faux-dialectal spellings like ‘wot’ and ‘woz’ are pointless at best, though, since they don’t indicate any significant phonetic difference, as you say.

    Eugene: Thanks for the insights. I think in some cases people do actually say, or hear, ‘could of’, when the vowel sound receives enough stress.

  24. Eugene says:

    Stan: If it’s a contraction, it can’t be stressed. If it’s stressed it would be the full form, have. For example, we say…
    “I HAVE finished my homework.”
    We never say…
    *”I’VE finished my homework.”
    You would expect stress on the modal…
    “He COULD’ve done it.” (It’s possible.)
    I can easily imagine stress on the main verb…
    “He could’ ve DONE it.” (As opposed to leaving undone.)
    But I wouldn’t expect…
    “He could HAVE done it.” (What would that contrast with?)
    And I really can’t imagine…
    “He could’VE done it.”

    Now, if people do really say, “He could OF done it,” that’s a new thing grammatically. I’m not closed to the possibility; I’d just like to see better evidence than people thinking they hear it, especially when ‘ve and of sound the same for most speakers.. Acoustic or syntactic evidence change my thinking; for example, if people clearly say it after the modal that ends in a vowel – “may of” in “may have” – that would point to the possibility that it’s really the preposition ‘of’ in the speaker’s grammar.

  25. Eugene says:

    Whoops. Evidence might change my thinking and “may of” instead of “may have.” I should of printed before posting.

    • old-gobbo.pip.verisignlabs.com says:

      Broadly I agree with Eugene as far as stress goes: but I remain convinced that I have heard people say, for instance, “Well, I might of”, as shorthand for e.g. “Well, I might have seen it”. (Obviously with the main stress on ‘might’)

      • Eugene says:

        I guess that’s my main point – that the stress would be on the modal and not the perfect marker. That’s why I’m skeptical about people being able to hear a distinction between of and ‘ve in this construction. In both cases you’d hear schwa + /v/. Certainly, though, you can hear when speakers articulate the full form, have.

      • Niall says:

        I agree. I’ve definitely heard things like ‘I might of’ or ‘I could of’, where the ‘of’ is clearly realised as /ɒv/, and not as /əv/. I agree when it comes to stress, but when realised as /ɒv/ it remains unstressed but the vowel isn’t reduced to schwa. It’s certainly nothing to do with the preposition ‘of’ as Eugene suggests…gramatically speaking it’s still functioning as the auxiliary verb ‘have’, just a non-standard usage of ‘of’. I would imagine that this has come about from a simple spelling mistake which has come to be reflected in speech…but that would just be me guessing.

  26. […] Would of, could of, might of, must of « Sentence first […]

  27. Nelida K. says:

    As I mentioned above in my reply to Harry Lake, I am a certified and college-trained translator of English, native in Spanish, born, working and living in the Southern Cone of South America. As a professional linguist, I don’t have much patience with these non-standard uses (and I am of the opinion that ‘non-standard’ is the most neutral and least demeaning label). I would surely have flunked my courses, had I used “of” instead of “have”. Despite this, I don’t have any objections to its being used in literature or fiction, to denote a certain register or replicate colloquial/dialectal speech, provided it is made clear that such is the writer’s intention. Some of the comments mention that there are other ways, and I am sure there must be, but I don’t think that the contraction ‘´ve’ is one of them, because in that case you would be using a standard mechanism to reflect a non-standard use, which would effectively be in contradiction with the writer’s purpose.

  28. […] word behavior. Stan Carey updated us on Google’s Ngram Viewer 2.0, and on his own blog, explored would of, could of, might of, must of and ancient Irish names. Kory Stamper shared her response on logic and etymology. Grammar Girl […]

  29. […] story in a sci-fi setting with elements of mystery and western. It also has examples of dialectal would of (We should of killed them; you’d of met him), which I wrote about recently. I’m not a fan of […]

  30. […] to convey a character’s earthiness or unsophistication. It’s a sort of* inverse of the would have → would of variation I wrote about last year (and have since updated with additional literary […]

  31. Steve says:

    I would reject a CV from a native speaker immediatly if it contains “would/could/might of”.
    It shows poor education, poor attention to basic details and a careless attitude.

    It’s different when done by a non-native speaker even though non-native speakers often know even better as they have uaually done their fair bit of grammar studying.

  32. Thank you for this! When I read “he’d of got me” in The Great Gatsby, I felt confused and even cheated. Had to look it up today, and your post helped clear it all up. Great research, too!

  33. […] The of version is now such a well-known error that some authors of fiction (rather snobbily) use it in dialogue to indicate a character’s lack of education. There are examples in this post on Stan Carey’s blog. […]

  34. June says:

    I think it is fine if you are quoting someone else. However, it is completely wrong when not specifically quoting someone (such as during an interview or characters in a book, etc.).

    • Stan says:

      June: Thanks for your thoughts on this. I’m not enamoured of the construction, though I am getting more used to it (and added another example from Dashiell Hammett today). But I would stop short of calling it competely wrong, since it seems some people do say it in their dialect.

  35. […] course, it cuts both ways. I’m not enamoured of the non-standard would of, could of construction sometimes used in novels. But that’s because I’m dubious about how necessary it is […]

  36. […] the modal+of construction (“might not of”), so I’ve updated my giant collection of comma splices in literature and my post on would of, could of […]

  37. Being a freelance translator myself, I found this info very useful

  38. I do find its use in identifying less educated characters in dialogue somewhat misleading. Non-natives may be forgiven for inferring from this practice that the actual pronunciation of the auxiliary as a schwa rather than “have” is a lower form of English, whereas it is in fact the most common pronunciation across all registers, regardless of education or literacy.

    Are we to therefore assume that the types of characters whose speech is transcribed thus are the kind of people who, whilst pronouncing this particular construction in the most conventional way, are likely to make this mistake in writing?

    If so, it seems a strange decision to depict it in written dialogue as it does not mark any audible difference from any other register.

    • Stan says:

      Stephen: It seems a strange choice to me too – and unexpectedly common among good writers, as my growing list of examples shows. On the other hand, some comments above report that the modal+of form is an accurate enough transcription of certain dialects, quite distinct from the equivalent with ‘ve.

  39. hamdy says:

    please answer this question

    she can’t find her mobile. someone ………………..have hidden it.
    can’t – might – may – must

  40. […] Would of, could of, might of, must of | Sentence first […]

  41. […] off in the left field by the coke stand, click the link if you want to see the grammar rules for ‘might have’ or ‘might of’ and ‘may have’ or ‘might […]

  42. Jan Freeman says:

    I don’t see think I’d ever presume to claim someone was saying “could of” rather than “could have,” based only on my opinion of how the schwa-ve should be pronounced. And printing it that way to render an oral quotation, as the BBC seems to have done (in your “Update” graf), is the height of condescension, no?

  43. Diu says:

    “I might of actually found a local photographer to hang out and create magic with?”

    This girl frequently uses OF with modal verbs, she is from Australia, so I’m wondering if it is an Australian English thing?

  44. Jeanne de Montbaston says:

    I’ve just seen the link to my post – thank you! I should clarify a minor point, though: you’re quoting my (polemical) translation of Julian, which renders her phrase ‘a sen’ as ‘of seen’. My argument is that, when Julian uses what looks like an indefinite article to us, she making a similar phonetic choice to that which we make when we say ‘would of’. For Julian, ‘have’ and ‘a’ are phonetically close enough that she can swap the one for the other, as she does here. It’s no more or less logical than ‘would of’ for a modern English speaker, and it gives the lie to the idea this is a ‘modern’ kind of error.

    But she does not say ‘would of’ in the original Middle English.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for clarifying this! Not that it wasn’t clear in your post: I don’t know how I misinterpreted it so, unless I was tired or in a hurry. I’ve edited the update slightly to better convey the status of the quotation.

      • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

        Thank you! I really enjoyed your post, so am flattered you’ve kept my point in.

        • old gobbo says:

          Ms de Montfort’s thoughtful blog post is worth reading in its own right (write?) (though I am not clear why Mr Carey first styled her ‘Lucy Allen’,ignorant me). However there is a difficulty here which I hope someone can resolve. In her blog de Montfort writes: “It’s not because she, or her scribe, doesn’t understand grammar, or confuses an indefinite article with an auxiliary verb. It’s simply because they sound similar enough that, when the rhythm of the sentence demands it, she can blur ‘have’ into ‘a’ with no harm done.” But this is not the same as the have/of case. As the OED advises us under “a,v.” (and as any reader of e.g. Shakespeare will be well aware) the have/a (and even “ha’ “) alternation was not a grammatical slip but a free choice between correct forms. I am accordingly unhappy with the translation of Julian’s “a” as “of”, to which it bears no relation that I can see.

          • Stan Carey says:

            I called her Lucy Allen because that’s her name. ‘Jeanne de Montbaston’ is her alter ego and the name of her blog.

          • Jeanne de Montbaston says:

            Julian is pre-Shakespeare by quite some way, but the OED is making the same point I’m making, just in different language. It is fairly well understood that ‘a’ and ‘have’ were (and in some dialects, are) close enough in sound to be exchanged. You can call this ‘correct’ if you like – as the OED does – but that’s not a neutral term. We might just as well observe that ‘of’ and ‘have’ are close enough in sound to be exchanged, and are therefore both ‘correct forms’. But, because the history of this interchangeability is not quite so long, we tend to decide it’s an ‘error’.

            And yes, Jeanne de Montbaston is a medieval French artist and my blog name!

      • old gobbo says:

        @Stan: thanks for the clarification – there are almost no limits to my ignorance, but this helps a little.

        @Jeanne de Montbaston: I fear that to my ignorance is allied invincible stupidity, but I cannot see that the two cases are comparable.
        1. Both “of” and “a”, we agree, are or are considered as or can be thought to be fairly close in sound to “ ‘ve” for various speakers and writers (leaving aside the affectation of would-be unlettered or faux-rustic, &c. use by some authors).
        2. We agree that ‘of’ is nowadays considered a less acceptable form of “have” for use by those aware of the current speech norms
        3. We agree that Julian’s use of “a” was not exceptional by the usage of the time
        4. So I cannot understand why you wish to use a non-standard form of “have” to translate Julian into modern English.

        Incidentally I am prepared to accept your guidance that Julian is earlier, possibly much earlier, than Shakespeare, whom I used as a reassuring example for those less familiar with Middle English; but the OED (2nd.ed.) cites its first example from 1350, so its frame of reference certainly covers Julian’s writing.

  45. bevrowe says:

    Reading through this fascinating series of comments again I conclude that we are sliding around many different registers without always making it clear which one we are talking about.
    I think the example sentence
    “Well, I might of.”
    which I think I have heard myself, is compelling evidence that even if most of the time there is no acoustic distinction between “might’ve” and “might of”, some speakers are actually saying “might of”.
    So we can distinguish three spoken registers.
    Standard: the speaker says “… might have.”.
    Loose: the speaker can read and lives in a community where almost everyone is literate and educated but says “… might of.”
    Dialect: the speaker lives in community where everyone uses the loose form so that it is for them the strict form.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Or there may be communities where might of is a variant with some currency: I don’t think it would have to be used by everyone or almost everyone in the population to hold its ground.

      I’ve softened towards it since writing this post, by the way. It seems fair to assume, in many if not all cases, that the writer is using it in good faith and without condescension (or inverted affectation, etc.) to reflect how a speaker says the word.

  46. bevrowe says:

    Non-grammaticality is interesting. Do we need some version of mens rea? For example, take the use of “whom”. Speakers might:
    . always use it
    . sometimes use it but be aware of the “error” when they say “who”
    . never use it on principle
    . never use it because they do not know the rule
    . never use it because no one in their speech community ever does.

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