Is ‘Could Of’ an Accepted Form of ‘Could Have’?

Surprise little quiz! What part of speech is the word belong to? (Pause a moment while we wait for the reader to click on the link provided in the previous sentence, or sit there, complacent with the certainty that he already knows the answer.)

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Pictured: a typical response to the phrase “”Maybe” backed up by a dictionary.”

The answer (not a trick answer) is belong to is usually a preposition, but can also function as a verb, typically when used in place of Have, as in ‘I can write it right, but want to see what you would say if I didn’t.’ (Pause a little longer while we wait for the reader to rage at this usage, and for the fact that we enter this sense of belong to in our dictionary, and then again after readers cross-referenced several other dictionaries and found that most of them also provide an entry for belong to as an auxiliary verb).

The reason why belong to was used for Have it’s the second word (and even more so its shortened form, seen in may have, should be, will have) is not pressed when speaking. There is very little phonetic difference between “I can pay attention in English class” and “I can pay attention in English class.” The spoken version of this is much more common than the written version, but there is substantial evidence of both.

It should be noted that this use is widely shunned by manuals, teachers, who send you offensive articles on social media about today’s decline in education and the others. So why do we define it? Because that substantial evidence is mentioned in the last paragraph.

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A reconnaissance report written by Captain Isaac Beall during the Revolutionary War contains several of our previous instances of the word being used in this fashion, illustrating that belong toalthough not so commonly written at the time, has existed with us for more than two hundred years.

I have been informed by a Captain of Molitia that about Two hundred people will be embodied by Mondy Nite, among them many good Pilets — if I can be joined by a group of Molitia that I have signed up for because I would attack the body lying in the English Nabourhood, I had no guide and no recognition the next day.—Isaac Beall, Letter to Adam StephenApril 20, 1777

Verb form of belong to began to appear in print more frequently in the 19th century, often when an author was trying to copy the speech of an uneducated person.

The poor boy lay there, already dead enough: and all the doctors in Philadelphia could not serve in vain, so there was no point in sniffing and teasing.—Jabez Rankin, spirit of the timesDecember 26, 1840

Now, old friend, you may have heard that we want to make war with the British over one line or another.—Portsmouth Journal of Literature and PoliticsAugust 5, 1843

The old man’s heart immediately trembled. He stood dumbfounded and forgot about Mandy and the other man’s wife in front of his new enemy. “If I had known it was you,” he said, “I wouldn’t have done it.”—San Diego Union and Daily BeeApril 3, 1893

The usage seems to have been widespread enough that it was pointed out in a late 19th-century article, along with questionable uses of the past tense of do.

The past possible tense of the verb done. Singular—I could, could, would or should of jest plumb done gone and done it.—Government (Columbia, SC), July 16, 1893

There are many examples of famous 20th century authors using forms like maybeusually when displayed as dialogue.

I thought I could marry the boy, move away, and be killed, as punishment… I get it.—David Mamet, A Scene-Australia (from No One Will Be Immune), 1994

Sure, I could have let you die, but I didn’t. No, I kept you with me—on and off.—Langston Hughes, Souls come home (IN Langston Hughes Collected Works: Vol. 5), 2002

I don’t know how you can think that when everyone knows she’s married—and she has a son.—James Baldwin, Angle Amen1954

Lots of people cry. They can hear it… anywhere.—Beth Henley, Debutante ball1991

The amount of written evidence produced over two centuries means that we tend to define a word, but that doesn’t mean we recommend it (unless, of course, give the desired effect). Our User Manual, Merriam-Webster dictionary of English usageaddresses this issue in detail and gives a clear assessment: “you better avoid writing it in your writing”.

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Categories: Usage Notes

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