Could have (could’ve) vs. could of – Which one is correct?

Are “Could have/could’ve” the same as “could of”? Native speakers tend to use them indiscriminately and we want to take a closer look at these two phrases. Keep reading to learn the differences and how to use them. 

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Differences in spelling and pronunciation

Let’s start with the obvious, they are not the same in how they are written. There is a difference between “of” and “‘ve” which should be acknowledged. “Of” is a word most often used as a preposition (although it can have other purposes) and “‘ve” is the contracted form of the verb “have”.

They are not similar in the way they are written, but they are almost identical in the way they are pronounced. Usually, when we use “have” as the main verb, it is stressed and accented when spoken. But in this case, as it works as a part of a modal verb and it is contracted, we do not stress it. The same happens with should’ve and would’ve. That means that the difference in pronunciation between of and ‘ve in normal speech is minimal (a slight variation in the fricative f/v sound), which we can overlook. This is the reason why many people use “could of” and “could’ve” equally. Whether they mean the same or not is a different question.

Meaning

Now, can we actually use them without changing the meaning of what we are saying? The short answer is: yes, we can. In reality, both of them would have the same meaning, only with a different spelling. It is similar to the idea of “colour” in the UK, which is written like “color” in the USA. Are they the same thing? Yes, but with different spelling. The difference with could of/could’ve is that they are used in the same territories so it is not a dialectical difference. So, does that mean that only one of the spellings is correct?

Correctness

The final question is if both of them are correct. And you might be surprised to know that they are both correct but not both of them are advised to be employed. You might be aware that “could have” is a perfect modal, meaning a modal verb (could) + an auxiliary verb (have) to create the past tense of the modal and add other uses to the modal form. 

Could of is technically not a perfect modal because we mostly use “of” as a preposition and perfect modals are used with the auxiliary “have”. However, according to Merriam-Webster, “of” can function as an auxiliary verb when it substitutes “ve”. Yes, one of the definitions of the word “of” is that of an auxiliary verb. But only “in representations of uneducated speech”.

That means that, because there are quite a few oral and written instances of the usage of “could of” instead of “could have”, it has been normalized and added to the dictionary. It means the same as “could’ve”, but it was mainly used by uneducated people. The most technically and grammatically correct option is “could’ve”, or at least, it is the recommended phrase to use. “Could of” is only advised to be used when we want to give a desired effect, not in general speech.

All in all, while both are accepted, avoid using “could of” in your writing and use the perfect modal “could have/could’ve” instead.

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