Why Do People Say “Would Of”?


A commenter on one of my recent Facebook statuses says,

“Wish you would do a post on the misuse of the word “of.” I am so tired of seeing “could of,” “must of,” etc!”

Thanks for the idea, Rhonda.

This is one of those issues that irritate the conscientious grammarians among us, but I hope you can see that the mistake is understandable. Notice I said mistake. As much as I lean toward descriptivism, I do think there are numerous principles of language that to violate would constitute an error. This is one.

Modal Verbs

To explain fully, let’s review modal verbs.

A modal verb is an auxiliary (helping) verb that, in addition to expressing action or state of being, indicates probability, ability, obligation, or permission. The most common modal verbs are:

can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would

These verbs can be used in the simple present tense:

  • She could come to the party.
  • You should not drive my car wearing that gorilla suit.
  • Ed must deliver my granola to the concierge.
  • Carl would not negotiate with a poodle. 

No problem so far. The problems occur when people use what we call the perfect modal tense. Without explaining too much, that’s when you need both the modal verb and the auxiliary verb have:

  • She could have come to the party, but I didn’t see her.
  • You should not have driven my car wearing that gorilla suit.
  • Ed must have delivered my granola earlier.
  • Carl would have never negotiated with a poodle.

Our Ears Deceive Us

Still no problem really, but in common speech, most people contract the helping verbs. Instead of saying could have, should have, must have, or would have, we say couldve, shouldve, mustve or wouldve. It’s just easier to blur the sounds into each other and speak in contractions. It’s perfectly fine to do this, especially in casual conversation and informal writing.

But to many people, couldve, shouldve, mustve and wouldve sound exactly the same as could of, should of, must of, and would of. And since that’s what they hear, that’s what they say and that’s what they write.

This doesn’t make it correct, but it makes me a little sympathetic.

If this is a mistake you have made in the past, I hope I’ve helped you avoid it by understanding why it’s wrong. If you are a strict grammarian whose feathers get ruffled by this, I hope I’ve helped you be a bit more understanding. By all means, correct the error when necessary, but let’s be patient with each other as we do.


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About the Author

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Deanne

    I found this very interesting. I also get annoyed when people say would of or could of. Instead of have. I also find that his is used instead of he’s . One thing I find most annoying is the mispronunciation of the word specific. Grr !!. Why do people say Pacific?.

  2. Kevin

    Actually I’m not the least bit sympathetic, it’s just more proof of how parents, teachers, and students themselves have failed and shows our educational system is garbage and also proves how stupid Americans have become.

  3. John Cabrera
    John Cabrera12-17-2013

    Hi – I know a lot of people apply identical pronunciations to “should’ve” and “should of”, but this is bad diction. By making the pronunciation of the word “of” and the contraction of “have” (”’ve”) the same, poor speakers lose understanding that these are two distinct words that are to be pronounced differently. As Henry Higgins would say, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? This verbal class distinction, by now, should be antique.”

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