Sunday, November 1, 2009

SPAG woes - could of / should of

On Facebook, Twitter and all manner of other websites and bases for written communication, I'm forever seeing people assert that they 'should of' done something or other, or that someone else 'could of' attended some function. Indeed, taking a brief break to check my Facebook news feed, I see that someone has only this minute responded to one of my friends' status updates with "he should of spun webber* out". This is one of those written misconceptions that gives me a brief facial spasm every time it is inflicted upon my retinas.

The thing is, most people who commit this crime against the written word have no idea they're doing it. So rather than confront everyone who makes this mistake personally**, I'll address it here for anyone who cares about the state of their written communication to browse in their own time. Don't worry, I won't tell anybody.

What's the problem?

  • You could of told me!
  • Oh, man, you should of been there.
  • You shouldn't of done that, punk.

None of these sentences actually means anything. They make no sense whatsoever. If you say them in your head, though, they sound almost exactly like something that would of*** made sense:

  • You could've told me!
  • Oh, man, you should've been there.
  • You shouldn't've done that, punk.
That apostrophe**** is telling you that something has been missed out. In each of the cases above, it's ' ha', so if those sentences were to be spoken in full with no laziness of diction, we'd say:
  • You could have told me!
  • Oh, man, you should have been there.
  • You shouldn't***** have done that.
So there you have it. 'could of' makes no sense; 'could have' is much better. 'Should of', 'shouldn't of' and 'couldn't of' don't make any sense either. Try 'should have', 'shouldn't have' and 'couldn't have' instead. If you really can't be bothered to type the whole of the word 'have', then use an apostrophe: 'could've', 'should've' and the rest will do the job when it comes to both making your sentence sensible and calming my pulsing temple when I'm reading it.

Where does the misconception come from?
I think that's fairly easily solved: say both of the following sentences out loud:
  • Mavis should've gone to the shop to get some milk, but didn't get dressed in time.
  • Mavis should of gone to the ship to get some milk, but didn't get dressed in time.
They both sound (almost) exactly the same: the " 've" bit sounds just like "of" when included in a sentence being spoken using the relatively lazy diction that most of us use in normal conversation. It's perfectly understandable to think that some people will think they've heard 'could of' when in fact it's actually 'could've' that has been said.

To SPAG-nazi types
Feel free to correct anything you think is wrong with what I'm saying, or to point out any typos or mistakes that I have made myself******, but please try to distinguish between genuine mistakes and matters of personal style, experimentation, deliberate rule-breaking and possibly ineffectual attempts at humour.

* The lack of capitalisation even though this is someone's name is a gripe for another post; another day.
** That would take longer than the life I have left to live, and would probably have the effect of shortening that life anyway.
*** Yes, that's my attempt at humour.
**** That's one of these, if you're not sure: '
***** Here, the apostrophe indicates some different letters missed out. In this case, "shouldn't" = "should not".
****** Thanks, Jo.