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Two-Minute Drill: Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda, and More | Kestrel's Aerie

Two-Minute Drill: Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda, and More | Kestrel's Aerie

Two-Minute Drill: Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda, and More

Wouldn’t writing in English be so much easier if we could just write out words, or combinations of words, the way they sound? Instead of typing out forget about it, I could simply write fuggedaboudit and be done.

Of course, if I’m writing dialogue, I can do such things, if the character’s vernacular is such that he’s from the Lower East End or South Jersey. For example, here’s the classic line by Marlon Brando’s character, Terry,  in On the Waterfront (1954): “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.” You can be sure the script does not say “could have been.”

Clearly, none of us is going to write “coulda” in normal prose, even though that’s how we often hear it said. No; instead, what we see is, “I could of been a contender” or “I should of left before it got ugly” or “I would of bought you that if I knew you wanted it.”

So what’s wrong there? They all sound right, when we speak them (quickly), but that’s exactly how people get into trouble: They write what they hear (or think they hear), instead of what is correct. But how do we know whether could have or could of is correct?

Could, should, would require helping verbs, not a preposition!

Could, should, and would (as well as have) all belong to that group of words called “helping verbs” (also known as auxiliary verbs). Helping verbs are followed by either another helping verb (“could have seen”), a verb (“could see”), an adverb (“could barely see”), or a negative (“could not see”).

The word of is not a verb (nor is it a helping verb); it’s a preposition. And, because it is a preposition, it needs to be part of a prepositional phrase, and in the construction “could of been a contender” there is no prepositional phrase.

So to avoid confusion when using could/should/would, remember to keep your helping verbs close to each other, and away from that naughty preposition!

"Divorcé" is the future imperfect form of "fiancé"

Now, we’re not going to merely shift gears, we’re going to shift parts of speech as well.

Most of us know, I’m sure, that a formerly married woman is known as a divorcée. Similarly, most of us know a man’s intended bride is his fiancée. Unfortunately, not everyone is aware that the man to whom a woman is engaged to be married is her fiancé. That’s right: two genders, two words.1

In case you’re wondering, divorcé is also a word, and indicates a divorced man. It’s the future imperfect from of fiancé

Today’s final bit is the distinction between the abbreviations "i.e." and "e.g."

Both are from Latin, but because both are so commonly used in English, they are not considered foreign words or terms, and are normally not italicized.2

"I.e." is probably the more common of the two (possibly because it’s misused more often?), is short for id est, and means, simply, "that is." "E.g." is short for exempli gratia (“for the sake of example”). These are abbreviations, so the periods after each letter are required; furthermore, use a comma on either side of them. Avoid using both in the same sentence.

If the employee is on salary, i.e., paid by the week rather than the hour, the fee is $10.00.

The most common American beers are pilseners, e.g., Budweiser, Coors, and Miller.

Finally, if you start a list with "e.g.," there’s no need to end it with "etc." (the abbreviation for et cetera, "and so on"), because the "e.g." implies the list is not all-inclusive.

Are there other words or word forms you see used improperly? Or are there some you aren’t sure about how to use properly? Post in the comments, or email me using the contact form , and I’ll address them in a future article.

  1. Incidentally, I’ve italicized the words to make them stand out; even though they are technically “foreign” words, coming to us from French, do not italicize them in normal prose. That’s another article for another day, by the way.
  2. I say "normally not italicized," because some publishing houses, especially for scholarly texts, may dictate otherwise. But for what you and I use them for, use Roman type.
10 Responses to Two-Minute Drill: Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda, and More
  1. Bre
    January 20, 2010 | 11:54

    Wow, this post really helped! I knew there was a male and female version of the word “blond” but wasn’t aware there was a male and female version for divorcé and fiancé! It shows how the romance languages (e.g., Spanish, French and Italian) have had an impact on the English language; in those languages,gender specific versions of words are very common.

  2. Tami
    January 20, 2010 | 12:22

    *laughs* Whereas I didn’t even know about the blond thing!

    • Kestrel
      January 20, 2010 | 12:41

      My hair was blond until I was about 4 years old. Your hair, on the other hand, is still blonde. (Or…blonde again.) ;)

      • Bre
        January 20, 2010 | 12:43

        hehe :D

  3. Hannah
    January 20, 2010 | 12:53

    Interesting stuff. I always knew it was “could have” instead of “could of” – but didn’t actually know why. Thanks!

    • Kestrel
      January 20, 2010 | 13:02

      Always happy to enlighten! Glad you found it interesting. :)

  4. Mazil
    January 21, 2010 | 20:31

    Thanks for the grammar drill!

    You might be pleased, you inspired a Google trek to learn about “none of us is” (versus “none of us are”). I never knew that “none” and “neither” could (or should) be used as singular – oops!