Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 63: Woulda Shoulda Coulda

This week we're discussing contractions that are often misspelled or confused when they make their way from spoken English into written English. Taken by themselves, contractions seem to be pretty straightforward. Most contractions in English follow one of two common forms. The first is combining a pronoun with an auxiliary verb such as:
I am going to call my lawyer!

Becomes...
I'm going to call my lawyer!

Another common way to form a contraction is to take a modal auxiliary verb, or helping verb, and negate it. Put simply:
You will not.

Contracts to...
You won't.

Those examples are easy, and probably don't give writers a lot of trouble. Things get sticky, however, when the lines blur between formal, written English and informal spoken English. Contractions that normally go unnoticed when spoken have found a strange place in written communication, especially e-mail.

When speaking, contractions like would have take on an auditory quality that can be deceptive. The contraction, would've can sound as though the speaker is combining the modal auxiliary verb "would" with the preposition "of." Or, spoken even more quickly, it might come out as "woulda." And while the error may go unnoticed in conversation, it becomes clear when it's written out. Contractions like "would of" and "should of" seem to be all over e-mails, blogs and personal web pages. As Patricia O'Connor writes in Woe is I, her guide to better English:
There's good reason to stay away from writing these. Seen in print, they encourage mispronunciation…. It's fine to pronounce these as though the h in have were silent. But let's not forget that have is there. Write it out.

Confusing things further, English is filled with adverbs and modifiers that seem to lend credence to the argument that "could of" is an acceptable way to convey "could have."

Colloquial adverbs like sort of, and kind of mean "somewhat" or "rather." And unlike the contractions mentioned previously, these adverbs are perfectly acceptable. Because they're informal and have the same sound as contractions, they contribute to the confusion.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary and Woe is I by Patricia O'Connor

Music from this Episode: "I Should Have Known Better" by She & Him; "Could Have Been" by Lee Fields.

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