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As a non-native speaker, I would never have guessed that this mistake was a thing before I read it on the web.

Since it makes no grammatical sense, I can guess that it can only be seen in the writing of native speakers because they have learned the language through oral communication, while most non-native are exposed to written English from the very beginning of their learning. I also guess the accent may influence the appearance of this error, and thus I am wondering, where are these people from?

Is it more of an American English thing? More British English? Something else?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Feb 4, 2022 at 0:55

3 Answers 3

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According to the following blog post by American linguist Lynne Murphy, the mistaken use of “would of” appears to be both British and American:

I read of instead of 've a lot in my British students' essays. A lot. There's no reason to think they're getting it from American influence, because they'd have to read it and they probably don't get the chance to read a lot of misspel{ed/t} American English. The American books or news they read will have (we hope) been proofread. I suspect that errors like this aren't learn{ed/t}from exposure at all: they are re-invented by people who have misinterpreted what they've heard or who have a phonetic approach to spelling, sounding out the words in their minds as they write.

(Lynne Murphy, Feb 4, 2016. "might of, would of, could of, should of", Separated by a Common Language: Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK)

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Feb 4, 2022 at 0:56
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Spellings like "would of", which are considered erroneous, occur in both American and British English, and probably, as Dan Bron's comment says, everywhere.

The reason for the spelling is that of and have have the same pronunciation in this context: /əv/ or /ə/.

This pronunciation is what English language teachers call a "weak form", meaning it is a pronunciation that occurs only when the word is unstressed. Many common grammatical words in English have weak forms with the vowel /ə/, and strong forms with a different vowel. Another example is to, with the weak form /tə/ and the strong form /tu/ (rhyming with do, and homophonic to two and too). The strong form of "have" is /hæv/, with the same vowel sound as "hat" or "cat". The strong form of "of" is /ɒv/ in British English; in American English, the strong form of "of" is usually /ʌv/.

Michael Harvey's comments saying that "of" rhymes with the first syllable of "hover" are referring to the strong form. However, I doubt that anyone habitually uses the strong form of of in this context. I would only expect to hear "of" in a strong form here in the artificial context of somebody who is reading out loud and making an effort to make "would of" sound distinct from "would have".

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    Re your last paragraph: I’m pretty sure I’ve occasionally heard would of pronounced with the strong of by native BrE speakers, in contexts where the phrase was heavily emphasised — something like “Didn’t he? I really would of!” — contexts where another speaker might say it with the strong form of have. Which doesn’t seem surprising — the spelling strongly suggests its users have reanalysed would /əv/ as would of, and so in contexts that elicit the strong form, it’s the strong form of of that comes out.
    – PLL
    Feb 4, 2022 at 14:52
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I see it frequently in America. It’s a homonym of the contraction would’ve, and similarly, other modal verbs like could’ve, should’ve, must’ve and might’ve. There is, however, no *can’ve or *will’ve in standard written English. I personally don’t contract can have that way in speech, or at least not as often, but do contract will have. I’m not sure, but this might be because I do sometimes say things like “can of beans” and very rarely “will of the people,” whereas the closest thing to would that I might follow with the preposition of is something like, “the wood of a sturdy tree.” So perhaps I subconsciously pronounce “can have” more distinctly from “can of.”

With negative contractions, won’t’ve and wouldn’t’ve are so rare that my spell checker doesn’t recognize either, but I pronounce the word have in wouldn’t have the same way as in would have, when they’re both stressed or both unstressed.

Another variant is “Woulda, coulda, shoulda,” or “Wooda cooda shooda,” which writes out phonetically an even more-reduced form of unstressed have. This is more informal than “Would’ve, could’ve, should’ve.” Be careful: other particles can be reduced the same way, so “canna” would be read as “cannot” or “playa” as “player.”

Since there are many verb phrases that do use of (for example, “Be of service”), *would of is an easy mistake for native speakers to make. It’s likely to become an accepted synonym of would have eventually, but is still considered an error by people of my generation.

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    won’t’ve and wouldn’t’ve
    – philipxy
    Feb 2, 2022 at 3:43
  • @philipxy I honestly cannot recall ever having seen either of those spellings before.
    – Davislor
    Feb 2, 2022 at 4:07
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    I can't imagine any other spelling; this is how contractions work. I expected your spellings were typos. A quick browse of sites of published dictionaries shows that if they have these words, they're spelled per my comment.
    – philipxy
    Feb 2, 2022 at 6:11
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    @philipxy that's certainly the sensible spelling, but I don't think I've ever seen them in writing except possibly in dialogue. Where I'd say "won't've" I'd write "won't have" and I reckon most people would do the same
    – Chris H
    Feb 2, 2022 at 10:07
  • @philipxy A quick search shows that those spellings do occasionally appear, from 1920 onwards. They’re very rare.
    – Davislor
    Feb 2, 2022 at 13:40

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