Topic: Why Shoulda, Coulda, Should of, Would of? | English Speaking Habits

Pronouncing Modal Verbs in the Past


Modal verbs? What? As English speakers, we have lots of funny speech habits. To the average person, they may not seem like a big deal. But what about those that have decided to take on learning this complex language?

“Take on me-e … take me o-on!”

You can almost hear English singing in the shower. You might have heard such words as “shoulda” or “coulda” before. Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about here.

What are Modal Verbs, after all?

A modal verb is a type of auxiliary (or helping) verb. This just means their purpose is to help other verbs to make sense. Modal verbs themselves are used to show a necessity or possibility. These are words like could, should, may, might, would, and so on.

In the past tense, modal verbs are often followed by the word “have.” This lets us know they are modals instead of a regular past tense verb. How do we know that “could” is acting like the past tense of “can,” or if it is expressing a possibility? We know it’s a possibility when it’s next to “have.” Look at this:

  • When I was younger, I could run a mile without stopping. (past tense of “can”)
  • I could have been a track star. (past tense of the modal verb “could,” shows a possibility)

Remember, modals don’t always need “have.” Adding it is used to show that this necessity or possibility was in the past. The same goes with should have, may have, might have, would have, and more.

You Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda … Used Correct Grammar

The habit I told you about earlier is that many people turn “have” into a simple shwa sound (“uh”) when talking. They basically get rid of the “h” and “v” sounds. This makes could have sound like coulda.

  • I coulda been a track star. (could have)

This is so common that we have an expression to mimic this; shoulda, coulda, woulda. Or coulda, shoulda, woulda. Woulda, coulda, shoulda? I guess it doesn’t really matter what order you say it in. Some people say this to express when it’s too late to do something and the opportunity has passed. Similar expressions are “that’s too bad,” “too late,” or “keep dreaming.” 

 — You know, I could have been a track star.

 — Yeah! Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

Should of, Could of, Would of

To take it a step further, “have” can completely change and turn into “of.” This isn’t grammatically correct, but it happens because some people might pronounce the “could-a” like “could-uv.” This happens when we mean to contract “could have” and say “could’ve.” The pronunciation of the “of” sounds very similar to that final “ve” sound, so it’s easy to confuse the two in everyday speech. Many people who even know the correct grammar might make a mistake when writing or speaking and say “of” instead of the short “‘ve” because of how easy it is to switch the two. 

More info:

  • ‘Should have’ and ‘should of’ on Quora

*Try saying could of and could’ve out loud. Do you notice how similar they sound? 

Here are some more examples!

See, you shoulda / should of been more careful. 

I coulda / could of been a millionaire. 

She musta / must of been crazy to adopt a lion.


Thank you for reading! Check the Blog to see similar posts.

**Have a question about another English speaking habit? Is there something you don’t understand about the way people talk? Tell me about it and I’ll write a post for you, and offer other resources to better understand!

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