Of: The Dangerous Preposition

The tweets above stemmed from a recent grammar discussion on Twitter. Knowing Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors as well as knowing my utter disdain for would of/could of/should of, frequent reader, K, forwarded the exchange. Other than “Otherwise not a fan”, I was disappointed with Mr. Gaiman’s response. In fact, his statement has me rethinking my complaint about his collaboration with Terry Pratchett on Good Omens. I should clarify that the frequent “would of, could of, should of” usage ruined the entire book for me and I’ve refused to revisit the book.

All this time I assumed that the would of/could of/should ofs were Terry Pratchett’s doing. Surely the great Neil Gaiman, the man who created the critically acclaimed Sandman series, wouldn’t stoop to using such hackneyed dialogue. This is why I avoided Pratchett’s books for so long and blissfully continued enjoying Gaiman’s works. Have I been wrong this whole time? This is bothersome. Why you ask? Allow me to deconstruct the tweet.

You know how a missed or bad note in a song rankles your ear? Would of/could of/should of similarly jars my eye. More accurately it’s jars my inner ear or my brain. Of is a preposition, it links a noun to another word. Have is a verb. Consider the sentence, “If I had won money at the casino, I would of gone to the store.” Since it’s not linking any noun, “would of” makes no sense syntactically.  Okay, perhaps you believe such conventions belong to the grammar nazis and instead you agree with Gaiman’s intent that its usage says something about a character. Fine. Other than conveying the character isn’t smart enough to know the difference between of and have, what else is it saying? Nothing, it’s nebulous. We might assume that the character didn’t progress past the 8th grade, but do we know that? Probably not unless it’s defined. I would argue there are better, clearer ways to convey a character. Isn’t clarity one of the goals of good storytelling?

Maybe you feel I’m being too rigid. Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh please, that leaves nothing to the imagination. Where’s your sense of adventure? Where’s your sense of whimsy?” This leads to his penultimate thought, “Especially for humorous effect”. Working in the comedy realm over 20 years, I can’t think of any example where using would of/could of/should of has had any comedic effect other than its use in rants about it. How meta! If you have an example where it’s been used for humorous effect, I’d love to read it or hear it. Please share below. If not, perhaps we can acknowledge that its proliferation and use is borne from laziness. I’ve had people defend would of/could of/should of’s use because as they say, “I read it in a book.” There’s the rub.

Personally, I think Gaiman could’ve been more succinct by saying, “Not a fan.”

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