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Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

“Coulda, woulda, shoulda” goes the regretful refrain made popular by a song of the same name.

It’s the lament any of us might utter when we realize we’ve made a poor choice or followed a path that didn’t end up where we’d hoped it would.

I hope you also share my regret over the abuse of this phrase—this rendering being an even more egregious error than the one sometimes seen in print: could of, would of, should of. That may be what you hear, but what someone is really saying is have not of.

  • I could have taken you to the airport if you would have let me know.

When we’re speaking, we tend to run our words together and form the contraction could’ve. But what we hear is this:

  • I could of taken you to the airport if you would of let me know. [Which is wrong!]

What’s so awful about that construction? Could, would, should are members of the verb family. Technically, they are auxiliary or helping verbs. Because they are “assisting” verbs, they always occur in a phrase—which consists of other verbs. In this example, could have taken is a verb phrase. (For the record, of is not a verb, so it cannot be part of a verb phrase.)

People who insist on writing could of (or would of or should of) ought to receive thirty lashes with a wet noodle.

Are You Eager or Anxious?

Despite the fact that they are often used interchangeably (and Merriam-Webster calls them synonyms), anxious and eager do not mean the same thing. “Both words convey the notion of being desirous,” says Theodore Bernstein in The Careful Writer, “but anxious has an underlay of faint apprehension.”

Anxious means worry, concern, distress, uneasiness—all negative connotations.

  • Marie was anxious as she waited for the doctor’s diagnosis.

Those who argue that anxious should never be used as a synonym for eager overstate their case. Webster’s New College Dictionary includes this definition for anxious: eagerly wishing. If that’s the sense you wish to convey, it’s an appropriate use of the word.

  • Henrietta was anxious to see her new grandchild.

In the case of a much-anticipated child, concern over the child’s safe delivery and eagerness to see the new baby, anxious seems the right word to use. And that is always our goal as writers—using the precise word.

Eager conveys enthusiasm, inpatient desire, or interest. Eager has an air of expecting something good.

  • Marie was eager for a good report.
  • The children were eager for summer vacation.

I Continue to Be Continuous

I continue to be concerned about good writing. That’s why I want to point out to you that continual and continuous are not the same thing. Sure, they have the same root word: continue. They both refer to duration or length. But the root continue has many variations with slight but significant differences in meaning and usage from continuous.

Continuous means without stopping.

  • Hannah kept up a continuous wail while Dad changed her diaper. (Poor Dad. There was no break, no reprieve, from the baby’s ear-splitting cries.)

But continual means repeated with intermittent breaks. Continue Reading…