Pedantique-Ryter: Could Have or Could Of?

We could of had it all

exclamation mark in fireIf you do a web search for could of, you’ll find quite a few people searching for song lyrics. Examples of search terms include: exploding champagne as in "it could of been the champagne"It could of been the champagne

and “It could of been me.”

We could of had it all” was a search for a song by Adele, called Rolling in the Deep.

And the line in question was, of course,
We could HAVE had it all“.

What’s happening here?

Spoken English — which some other pedants might call sloppily spoken English — tends to shorten common expressions, especially verbs. So we may write “do not”, but we usually say “don’t”. We write “I have been”, but we say “I’ve been”.

It used to be standard to find the extended form in the written word, even in dialogue. For example, the kneeling swain in an old romance might say, “I have loved you all my life.” But if it were a spoken line in a play or a film, it would be, “I’ve loved you all my life.” Nowadays, writers (and their editors) seem to take the view that what is on the page should reflect how people actually speak. Dialogue in modern books uses “I’ve”, “we’d”, “didn’t” much more often as a result.

And that is, I maintain, how it should be. Except…

Crucially, we write “could have“,
but we sometimes say “could’ve“.
And doesn’t that sound exactly like “could of“?

I’m afraid it does.

Bovvered? Am I?

Writing the words as they are spoken raises quite a few problems. For a start, Person A’s way of speaking the words may be totally different from Person B’s. Catherine Tate’s Lauren Cooper was possibly a case in point, though since “bovvered” became Word of the Year, 2006, most people will recognise it. But in less well-known cases, the poor reader may be left trying to puzzle out what’s going on.

My Fair Lady: Cecil Beaton's Ascot dress and hat for Audrey Hepburn

My Fair Lady: Cecil Beaton’s Ascot dress & hat for Audrey Hepburn

Pygmalion poster (1913) starring Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza Dolittle

Pygmalion poster (1913) starring
Mrs Patrick Campbell as Eliza Dolittle

If you don’t believe me on this, have a look at the opening of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (the source of My Fair Lady on stage and screen).

At first, Shaw faithfully renders Eliza’s tortured pronunciation on the page. It does give a flavour of her Cockney accent, but it is very hard to read. I think it’s more deciphering than reading. See if you agree. This is Eliza’s third speech from the play, including Shaw’s own note:

Ow, eez ye-ooa san, is e? Wal, fewd dan y’ de-ooty bawmz a mather should, eed now bettern to spawl a pore gel’s flahrzn than ran awy athaht pyin. Will ye-oo py me f’ them?
[Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.]

Unintelligible inside London, as well, I’d have said. [And for those who are puzzling, I’ve put a standard English translation at the foot of this blog.]silhouette of dancing couple in extravagant pose

Eliza has to learn, the hard way, to articulate correct English in a beautiful cut-glass accent and, especially, to pronounce her Hs. So, in the film, she does not sing “I could of danced all night.” She doesn’t even sing “I could’ve danced all night.” She enunciates every syllable and we hear, “I could have danced all night“, complete with H and have.

Pedantique-Ryter Tip #1: Write as we speak?

two little girls communicating a secret in whispersThe crucial factor in written English is communication. What you write must be easy for the reader to understand. Shaw gave up on Eliza’s Cockney because it was unintelligible. It got in the way of communication.

So, provided the meaning is immediately clear to the reader, it’s fine to use spoken contractions — don’t, isn’t, would’ve — in your written text, especially in dialogue. But if you have any doubts about whether your reader will follow what you’re writing, stick to standard written English. That can’t be wrong, even if your reader might think your style is a bit pompous.

Pedantique-Ryter Tip #2: could have OR could of?

a woman whispers amazing information into another's earThis one is very, very easy.

Could of” is always wrong because it misrepresents what is actually being said. It is “could’ve”, the spoken contraction of “could have”.
The same is true of “would of“, wrongly used instead of “would’ve”, the contraction of “would have”.
Should of” is wrong, too, of course.

Writing “could of” instead of “could’ve” or “could have” is Never EVER Right. Right?

Since this is my first rant of 2019 and I couldn’t of done it earlier 😉 I’d like to wish all my readers a very happy, prosperous and grammatically correct New Year.
(And yes, “couldn’t of” was A Pedantique-Ryter Joke.)

Dedicating Thank You

Is this Dame Isadora under that huge hat?


I. Pedantique-Ryter



Translation of Eliza-speak:
Oh, he’s your son, is he? Well, if you’d done your duty by him as a mother should, he’d know better than to spoil a poor girl’s flowers and then run away without paying. Will you pay me for them?

18 thoughts on “Pedantique-Ryter: Could Have or Could Of?

  1. Helen F.

    Spoken versus written English, my current pet hate is “chest of draws’. I was looking online for a chest of drawers, and I discovered that a large number of people nowadays assume that it is called chest of draws, and that it has 1, 2, or 3 draws.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      I can’t say I’d noticed that one, but I’m not surprised. Another abomination, clearly, Helen. Part of the problem may result from the English habit of pronouncing the central “w” as an “r”, so “drawing” becomes “droring”. That being so, the last syllable is dropped from “drawers” because it’s ugly to pronounce it as “drorers”. In this, the Scots have it right, by not inserting that unlovely ‘r’ in the middle. In my opinion.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Misuse of the verb “sit” is a problem, I agree. A greater problem, in my view, is the misuse/misunderstanding of the two verbs “to lie” and “to lay” and their related nouns. How often have you heard people referring to “the lay of the land” when they actually mean “the lie of the land”, for example?

  2. lesley2cats

    Thank you, Madame.My friends on Facebook (and my family) suffer from my regular rants on this subject. There are, unfortunately, many opportunities to shout at both the radio and television, fewer, I’m glad to say, when at the theatre – vide Shaw. (PS Why can’t I do italics on here? grumble, grumble…)

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      Can one do italics in comments? can one?

      Experimenting a little, Lesley dear. One can do italics in comments, BUT one has to use html codes rather than the standard Ctrl+I. Put “< e m >” without the quotation marks or the spaces before the text and put “< / e m >” at the end also without quotation marks or spaces. (If I just give you the actual codes, my text turns into italics and does NOT show you what the codes are. Tiresome.)

      1. lesley2cats

        Thank you, Dame Isadora, I shall try. (didn’t work – must have done something wrong – as usual…)

        1. Dame Isadora Post author

          Sorry to hear it didn’t work, Lesley. It’s possible that it works for me because I’m logged into the website. I’ll ask the website gel to find a solution. But, just between us, she’s not too bright so she may be unable to come up with the answer.

          1. Joanna Maitland

            Thank you for that vote of confidence, Dame Isadora. I’m not sure whether your instructions for the use of html work for casual commenters. Experimenting: this phrase is intended to be in italics
            I shall submit comment and see if italics works.

          2. Joanna

            And it did work, even though I was not logged in and was using a different email address. So, Lesley, if you’re listening, the Damely instructions DO work but you have to get the angle brackets and the em and the forward slash in the right places. Have another go?

  3. Sarah

    Oh well done, Dame Isadora! I hated Nelly’s dialogue in Wuthering Heights because it was so darn difficult to read. I confess, though, I do occasionally drop a few aitches when writing dialogue for the “lower orders” in my books. Just to differentiate, don’t you know.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      There is a subtle balance to be struck when writing dialogue for the “lower orders” as you term them, Sarah dear, and also for regional dialects. One wants to give a flavour of the speech but, equally, one mustn’t make the text difficult to read.

      Some authors, I notice, decide that the way to make a character Scottish is to sprinkle lots of phrases like “ye ken” into their dialogue. Unfortunately, non-Scots often get the usage wrong since the word is derived from the Old Norse kenna, to perceive, and is usually used in the sense of “to be acquainted with” or “to be aware that something is the case”. The Germans have two different words: kennen to know = be acquainted with and wissen to know/understand. The French have two different verbs too. Sensible.

  4. Elizabeth Hawksley

    I am with you all the way on this, Dame Isadora. I made it a matter of honour to explain and correct it with my adult GCSE and A Level students. – and it always came up, year after year.

    1. Dame Isadora Post author

      It’s an uphill task, Elizabeth, but a worthwhile one. Keep up the good work. The Grammar Gods will pour blessings on your head.

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