LINGUIST List 5.1485

Mon 19 Dec 1994

Disc: could OF (was Native speaker intuition)

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  1. Tom Cravens, could OF (was Native speaker intuition)
  2. , "OF" / "'of'"

Message 1: could OF (was Native speaker intuition)

Date: Sat, 17 Dec 94 13:22 CDT
From: Tom Cravens <>
Subject: could OF (was Native speaker intuition)

I think there's a point of interest that's been lost as discussion
of the spelling (of) in 'could of', etc. has developed. I agree that as
long as the second element is unstressed, the pronunciation is totally banal.
And the spelling (of) may, as some have suggested, reveal nothing more than
enthusiastic indifference to spelling norms.

But there are varieties in which even when the second element is
stressed, 'have' is not recovered. Preface: by sheer happenstance, our
6-year-old daughter asked a few days ago, "What's a shorter way to say
'She is here'?", and then bombarded us with examples. I then turned it
around, asking "What's a longer way of saying 'I've eaten'?" Answer: I
have eaten. He's gone -) he is gone. But 'I could've done it' and 'I
might've done it' both elicited 'of'. An off-the-cuff hypothesis would
be that this is a normal stage, and that 'have' eventually will be
sorted out here, a prediction perhaps upheld by the fact that 'You
shouldn't've done it' elicited hesitation, then the answer 'have'.

The point of possible interest is that in my native speech, an element
homophonous with 'of' is the norm with modals, for adults as well as
children (Southern Illinois, but surely this is more sociolinguistic
than regional? -- blue collar, literate only at a basic level).
'I've done it' can only be expanded with 'have', but 'coulda/could've',
'mighta/might've' are expanded with the 'of' homophone. Either element
can be stressed (caps=stress): The response to something like "I wonder
if her'n George really did break up", could be 'COULD of' or 'could OF'
(with the latter implying more strongly 'I wouldn't be at all surprised').
A response with 'have' or 'HAVE' is perfectly comprehensible of course,
but strikes me as alien to local norms. (Schoolteachers insist on it,
but have little more success than they do with lay/lie, sit/set; the
distinction just isn't real to people).

My intuitions suggest that 'could of', 'might of' etc. may be categorized
with 'sort of' (I can't get a stress pattern 'sort OF', so that
may be spurious, or it may be semantic: 'I WOULD of', but *'I would OF).
In any case, the 'of' homophone here is not synchronically 'have',
and I would argue not essentially verb in character.

Tom Cravens
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Message 2: "OF" / "'of'"

Date: Mon, 19 Dec 1994 14:13:44 "OF" / "'of'"
From: <>
Subject: "OF" / "'of'"

I was puzzled when I first read Tony Bex's posting of 24 Nov 1994, and
I'm STILL puzzled. The responses of others suggest that I'm not the
only one, so perhaps some clarification is in order.

He wrote:
"If we take the strings:

 3. I would've done it.

and the emphatice assertion:

 4. I really would HAVE/OF (/ov/)

it would seem that, on the evidence of (some) British speakers'
phonologies, HAVE=OF. i.e., they treat OF as a VERB in some

As prescriptivists, we can tell them that they are wrong, and explain
(by analogy?) why they are wrong. As descripivists, though, it seems
that we have to take such native-speaker intuitions at their face value.
In the latter case, we are left with a conundrum and one that seems to
me particularly relevant to the problem of second language teaching:
WHO IS A NATIVE SPEAKER? For what it is worth, I have tried to explore
these issues more detail in 'Language and the Linguists',
 _social semiotics_ (1993),3,2, 161-181"

I have not read the article cited, which may be responsible for my
confusion, but for others in this boat, I have a number of questions.

(1) What vowel does /o/ represent? The one in "up" (as for (almost?)
all speakers on this side of the Atlantic)? "off"? "oaf"? Or what? I
think this may be relevant, because /^/ (the vowel in "up") is one
natural way of promouncing the schwa under stress, in which case we may
be discussing a nonproblem. (I presume contracted "'ve" normally has
schwa when following a consonant for the speakers he refers to.)

(2) What exactly does "treat OF as a VERB" mean? For that matter, what
does "OF" mean? (Surely it doesn't mean "anything pronounced like the
(historically speaking) preposition spelled "of"," since, again, ANYTHING
that's normally pronounced /v/ -- =schwa -- gets this pronunciation
under stress, assuming his /o/ = my /^/. Of course, if /o/ represents
some other vowel, then there's something to discuss.)

(3) What is the cryptic "evidence of (some) British speakers'
phonologies"? If we have the answer to this, then we may have the
answer to:

(4) How do we get from the "emphatic assertion" cited to
"netive-speaker intuitions"?

(5) Do the speakers referred to allow both HAVE and "OF" in "emphatic
asssertions"? Or do these folks have only "OF" where the prescriptively
correct have HAVE?

At the risk of trying to answer a question I may not fully understand,
here's my interpretation of what's going on: these folks have as
allomorphs of the lexeme PERF (ECT is -EN) /v/, "/ov/", and maybe /haev/
(/v/, too, of course, and on this side of the sea, //). Even if "/o/"
is something other than my /^/, this doesn't seem terribly remarkable:
we know that allomorphy exists, and that homophony exists, and this is
just more of the same. (Unless perhaps there is evidence we haven't
been given that somehow links this "/ov/" with the preposition of the
same pronunciation, although I can't imagine what this could possibly
be.) Is this any different from any other morphosyntactic
change-in-progress? And how does it lead to the question "WHO IS A
NATIVE SPEAKER?", and why does it seem "particularly relevant to the
problem of second language teaching"? Obviously, we have to choose some
dialect to teach, and presumably, as usual, one would choose one that
has no stigma attached to it.

Now for Jules Levin's response of 5 Dec, in which it is suggested that
"'of'" (apparently the same thing as Bex's "OF") "here is nothing at all
structurally, it is like the 'b' in debt". While I agree with Levin
that more research is needed, I doubt strongly that this is the case:
such constructions have the same meaning as
those with /haev/ / /v/, and there must be SOMETHING that's signaling
this meaning, and the only candidate I can see is /(v)/ / 'of'. That
is, regardless of how the thing that means PERF is pronounced (or
spelled), it's still lexemically PERF. (As such, it ought to behave
like other allomorphs of PERF in questions, negatives, requiring a
following ECT, etc. This is the further research I alluded to, not
(simply) the kind Levin alludes to.) Furthermore, Levin's suggestion does
not account for all of the data: why is "nothing" ALWAYS spelled with a
word that ends (sometimes) in /v/? (The lexeme POSSESSIVE is also
sometimes /v/-less, and sometimes (usually) stressless -- no doubt one
reason why "of" is chosen to render virtually the same range of

Don Churma, Dept. of English, Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306
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