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I have seen people using could of instead of could have. Are both of them correct? Is there a difference in meaning between them?

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    "Could of" is a misrepresentation of "could've", which is a contraction of "could have", which is where you started. "Could of" is not yet acceptable (and drives some people mad when they see it).
    – Margana
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 12:54
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    I hope could of never gets a foothold in English...not even informal...has it already? Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 15:28
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    @michael_timofeev u could of seen it alot by now if u r on Facebook n read the comments their.
    – Hellion
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 15:37
  • (man, was that painful to write.)
    – Hellion
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 15:37
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    This is a spelling issue, of approximately the same importance for the future of mankind as the correct spelling of theatre or emphasize. In the real language there is no difference between could've and could of and could have; they're all pronounced the same and understood the same. It's only folks whose sensitivities to spelling were permanently overstimulated in grade school who worry about this. To an English learner, it's irrelevant because it doesn't affect speech. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 20:31

2 Answers 2

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"Could of" is always wrong.

It's just that the contracted "have" in "could've" sounds like "of", so uneducated people started writing it as "of" too.

(For the record, "should of", "would of", "might of", and the like are also always wrong.)

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    @Hellion, sorry to say that a lot of educated people write "could of" as well. And I've heard people saying it ... "I ate the last of the pie" / "Well you shouldn't of" ... with the "of" fully pronounced. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 15:49
  • I'd add the hedge that the words could and of can legitimately end up together, though not in that meaning; the of can be part of a phrase like "of course" or "of one's own free will".
    – hemflit
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 16:00
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    @Geobits So you're saying shouldn't've'sn't a problem. I agree!
    – talrnu
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 16:44
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    @Hellion, "Could one do X at all?" - "One could of one's own will, but not by force."
    – hemflit
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 16:45
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    I'd be wary of saying it's "wrong". Language is a societal construct, after all, so if "could of" is mutually intelligible by the parties in the conversation then there's no "wrong" to it. Pedantry on the subject is foolish, as English (like any other language) will evolve no matter how pundits "feel" about the new constructs. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 17:09
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Technically speaking, the phrase "could of" (in this context) arose from a mishearing of the contraction "could've" (as Hellion points out) and the literal definition of the words does not convey the intended meaning behind the phrase "could have". This is called a malapropism: "the mistaken use of a word in place of a similar-sounding one" (from Wikipedia).

With that said, language is not a set of "right" and "wrong". It evolves as our habits do, and things that were once considered "wrong" can become the accepted way of speaking and writing, even in the most formal settings. For example, the word "apron" used to be spelled "napron" -- but because the phrase "mine napron" was so common, the word was misheard so frequently that it eventually changed. That and several other examples of malapropisms that entered the English language are written about in this guardian article.

Recent printed usage of "could of" is nothing compared to "could have". In professional and formal settings, using the phrase "could have" is definitely preferable.

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  • I don't think mine napron in particular was ever all that much more common than it is now. Rather, it is the relative non-commonness of the word apron in general, combined mostly with the indefinite article a(n) (but yes, also with the possessive determiners) that bungled things up. When the final /n/ was lost in an as well as mine/thine, things like anapron became ambiguous: is it a napron or an apron? Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 17:08
  • @JanusBahsJacquet i agree that your speculation seems very likely, but i think that i will leave the answer as written since that example comes directly from the article i cited in the following sentence. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 17:10
  • @WoodrowBarlow: A fellow descriptivist! Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! The English language loses a tiny bit of poetry every time someone corrects a mutually intelligible shift in an utterance. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 17:12
  • @WoodrowBarlow , EL&U is a site for language lawyers to discuss such distinctions and to come up with the currently acceptable usage. "It's a malaprop" could be the answer to nearly every question on the site, but that's generally not the answer the questioners are seeking. Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 17:19

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