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Summary Details

Query:   English 'Should Of' Construction
Author:  Mark Jones
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   General Linguistics

Summary:   Regarding query:

I recently posted a query to LinguistList about the ‘should of’ construction in speech).
Although I was familiar with the occurrence of orthographic to represent reduced ‘have’
orthographic <’ve> (both phonetic [@v], where [@] = schwa) in writing, I hadn’t seen any
references to the use of a realisation with a LOT vowel (back rounded or unrounded,
depending on dialect) in stressed positions in speech., i.e. a full form of ‘of’. Use of the full
form OF occurred in stressed positions in phrases like “He didn’t score, but he SHOULD OF”
in TV interviews with two British English footballers (Alan Shearer, 35, born Newcastle, and
Wayne Rooney, 20, born Liverpool).

This summary is in two parts: the first part is a collection of responses, and the second is a
comment on the comments. Many thanks to all who responded – names at the end.

Part 1 – Respondents' comments

Geographical extent: UK (East Yorkshire, south and NW England, Nottinghamshire, London
(1940/1950’s), Liverpool, Reading, Newcastle); US (NE AmEng, US colloquial English,
Kentucky/Tennessee/Appalachian English, Georgia, New York); Southern Hemisphere (New
Zealand Eng, Ausralian Eng, South African Eng).

Respondents often suggested the evolution of the form was due to reanalysis as unstressed
of = ‘ve phonetically. This I think is probably correct, and uncontroversial.

Some questioned whether the full form was not occasionally a transcription error, or in fact
simply a “long schwa”. This comment only works for Englishes in which the LOT vowel is
back unrounded, i.e. not British English or Southern Hemisphere. See comments below.

One respondent suggested that stressed HAVE was impossible for him in his New York

I think we can safely conclude that stressed SHOULD OF in speech is not a geographically
restricted dialectal feature, nor is it limited to writing.

The following references turned up – there are others by Tim Stowell and Cleo Condoravdi,
but no detailed information was given. I haven’t checked Coates.


• Coates, Richard. (1989). ''A solution to the 'must of' problem''. York Papers in Linguistics
• Kayne, Richard. (1997). ''The English complementizer of''. The Journal of Comparative
Germanic Linguistics 1.43-54.
• Cheshire, Jenny, Viv Edwards, and Pamela Whittle. (1993). “Non-standard English and
dialect levelling.” In Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy (eds.). Real English. The grammar of
English dialects in the British Isles. Longman, London: 53-96.
• (2005). ''Syntactic surprises in some English letters: the underlying progress of the
language''. Language History from Below - Linguistic Variation in the Germanic Languages
from 1700 to 2000, Clifton, Bristol. URL:

Aidan Coveney reports similar phonetically-driven reanalysis in written French with “que l-
on” > “qu’on l’on”.

Part 2 – Comments on the comments

Some phonetically-oriented comments are required. Unstressed ‘of’ and ‘’ve’ are
phonetically identical. This undoubtedly underlies the reanalysis, but unstressed forms with
schwa ([@] below) tell us nothing about which form is used. The LOT vowel ([O] below) is
needed. I can put this no better than David Denison in his paper on ‘Syntactic Surprises in
some English letters’ (2005: 9):

“If the spelling represents unstressed [@v] then we have a purely graphic phenomenon
… It doesn’t represent indubitable proof that the writers were not identifying this form with
the perfect auxiliary have, though it is suggestive… However, we know from the present day
that many speakers genuinely identify the word with of and not with have and – crucially –
are happy to give it the stressed pronunciation [Ov]. When that happens, we know for sure
that we have a significant reorganisation of the auxiliary system.”

So written forms of for unstressed <’ve> are like orthographic confusions of there/their> or etc., and no indication of anything other than an ad-hoc solution
to writing speech. This could be a separate phenomenon.

Kayne (1997) comments that may be pronounced with a LOT vowel, but otherwise
deals with unstressed instances (with schwa?), and hence no intepretation on the use of
either ‘’ve’ or ‘of’ is reliably possible. Kayne specifically rejects the grammaticality of a
stressed OF (example 35).

Patrick Honeybone mentioned data on the acceptability of ‘should of’ in a written
questionnaire on dialect grammar in Britain in a survey carried out 1986-1989 (Cheshire et
al. 1993: 66). 73/80 schools across Britain reported the form. Unfortunately, the
questionnaire is written and the context is unstressed (schwa likely). Cheshire et al. (1993:
66) say that the ‘full form’ is pronounced with a LOT vowel, and suggest the form may
be recent, and that it may have emerged in writing. David Denison (2005) mentions the 19th
century use of (in an 1814 letter from Keats and poetry from Reynolds), and the
occurrence of written seems common in children acquiring literacy.

Even if the UNSTRESSED forms may occasionally sound more like they contain the LOT
vowel to a transcriber, this is no guarantee of an ‘of’ reanalysis. Schwa is a very malleable
vowel, and its precise quality will be affected by neighbouring vowels and consonants. This
is not necessarily a problem if corpus studies pay attention to the degree of labial and
lingual coarticulation to neighbouring consonants or the height and rounding of adjacent
vowels, but this is unlikely. Transcribers could be misled, though the indeterminate quality of
schwa could be a legitimate factor in reanalysis by naïve language users: a usage-oriented
account might argue that if a language user hears many cases of more LOT-like instances
of schwa in ‘’ve’ (because the majority of the possible neighbouring vowels condition a
perceptual movement in that acoustic direction), an ‘of’ reanalysis is more likely.

Either way, as Denison (2005) says, the stressed forms with a LOT vowel for ‘of’ (and also
possibly lacking /h/) are essential to identify a case of reanalysis.

To really demonstrate the OF reanalysis in stressed forms in a maximally objective way,
transcription is no use, and we should use spectrographic data on 1) the presence/absence
of [h], and 2) a qualitative comparsion of the putative OF vowel with other definite cases of
stressed OF and (H)AVE. I’m not suggesting all analysis requires spectrograms, but where
there is doubt these methods can help. There may even be subtle differences between
unstressed ‘’ve’ and ‘of’ in production (cf. Lavoie’s instrumental acoustic work on the
differential reduction patterns of phonologically identical ‘for’ and ‘four’ in AmEng, Journal of
the IPA 32(2), 2002: 175-202), though reanalysis suggests any effects are too subtle/
variable for many listeners to perceive.

Arguably, the General American realisation of ‘of’ (with a back unrounded vowel) is easier to
associate with schwa than the British and Southern Hemisphere English LOT vowel. This
doesn’t seem to have affected the possibility of reanalysis for naive native language users,
but it might bear on how salient the effect is to those listening out for it in an auditory
impressionistic analysis, i.e. non-North American forms may be easier to identify as definite
cases of stressed OF, cf. comment on 'long schwa' above.

I hadn’t intended this summary to become a pro-phonetics rant, but the phonetic forms
underlie the rest of the analysis (both by linguists and language users), so we must pay
close attention to them and to influences upon them.


Thanks (alphabetically) to:

Don, Joan Beal, Alex Bellem-Hussein, Theresa Biberauer, Karen Chung, Aidan Coveney,
Michael Covington, David Denison, David Eddington, William Edmondson, Marc Fryd, Rurik
Greenall, Elizabeth Hogbin, Patrick Honeybone, Steven Hartman Keiser, Paul Kerswill, Evan
J. Kidd, Andrew McIntyre, Lise Menn, Bruce Morén, Tim Nisbet, Cinnamon Nolan, Michael
Putnam, Karl Rein, Larrry Rosenwald, Charley Rowe, Nicole Russell, Ann Sawyer, Karen
Stanley, Tim Stowell, Michael T. Swan, Richard Terezopoulos, Rob Truswell, David Tugwell,
Kevin Watson.

Mark J. Jones
Department of Linguistics
University of Cambridge

LL Issue: 17.1861
Date Posted: 23-Jun-2006
Original Query: Read original query


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