As an editor and writer, I naturally have many peeves around the incorrect use of language. This Weekly Writing Tip looks at one of my pet peeves – the incorrect use of “should of”, “could of”, “would of”, and “must of” – a peeve I’ve discovered many share with me.

The correct versions of these phrases are “should have”, “could have”, “would have”, and “must have”. When we shorten these to a contraction, they are properly written as “should’ve”, “could’ve”, “would’ve”, or “must’ve.” But that looks odd, doesn’t it? I don’t think I’ve ever seen them written that way, except perhaps in a novel, when writing out someone’s conversation.

It’s surprising how many people write or spell these phrases incorrectly. Especially in their social media posts. I think the confusion arises from how they are spoken. In speech, we largely resort to using contractions – unless you are Lieutenant Commander Data. Contractions make language flow smoother and shorten what we need to say. When pronouncing “should’ve”, it is indistinguishable from “should of” to the ear. Therein lies the problem. If one hears “should of” often enough, one will be tempted to write it that way. 

Moving forward, I hope everyone takes note of the correct writing of these phrases. I’d be happily relieved if this was one less thing for me to correct when editing a paper. I’d especially enjoy having one less thing to cringe over when reading social media posts.

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