Should You “Could Have” Instead Of “Should Have?”
By Shel Silverstein
All the Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
Layin’ in the sun,
Talkin’ ’bout the things
They woulda coulda shoulda done…
But those Woulda-Coulda-Shouldas
All ran away and hid
From one little Did.
Recently, a friend made the following statement: “I should have, or maybe, could have been rich, if I would have bought Apple Computer stock when I graduated from college.” The instant he said that, I thought of the Silverstein poem. I asked him if he would like to hear a poem by Shel Silverstein, that would be an appropriate response to his statement? He answered: “If it’s THAT poem, NO!” I said: “Yep – same old poem.” Why did I think of the poem and have it memorized, you might wonder?
Well, when I was teaching, I quoted the poem to many of my students who approached me and made a statement about how s/he would have, could have, and/or should have done more studying, homework, … Usually this would happen at the end of the grading period and the grade s/he earned wasn’t what was desired. I would also put the poem in the section of my class syllabus where I explained how different grades are earned. Because I have used it so much, I have the poem memorized. Whenever I hear someone use the expressions, would have, could have, and/or should have, I automatically think of the poem.
After my friend made his statement about not buying Apple Computer stock, I not only thought of the poem, but I also started thinking about the differences between woulda, coulda and shoulda. As you can see from the statement he made, all three expressions (would have – woulda, could have – coulda, & should have – shoulda) were used. First of all, I suppose would have in his statement should be replaced with had. I’m not a purist with the English language (as I’m sure you can see from my writing:-) and I’m really more interested in the should have & could have expressions for this discussion. The would have expression, as used by my friend, can be replaced by had, but from my point of view, they both have the same meaning. On the other hand, if the statement used only one of should or could, then I think we have an interesting possible change that tells us something about what he believes regarding the statement.
Let’s consider another example. Suppose you say: “I should have exercised more.” Now, ask yourself why you should have done so? Is your answer, “Everybody thinks I should have.” Or perhaps, “I’m just too fat.” Really, when we use the words, should have, aren’t we often pressuring ourselves more than is necessary? Aren’t we trying to not only do something for ourselves, but also satisfy someone or something else.
Going back to my example of, “I should have exercised more,” and changing it to, “I could have exercised more,” sounds to me, much friendlier. When someone tells me, you should have, I immediately become defensive. I realize, you may not feel the same, but I do think most of us dislike hearing what we should do or should have done. It seems to imply that someone else is trying to tell us how to run our lives. When someone tells me, you could have, I think the person is not telling me how to run my life, but instead, just giving me possibilities to consider. A much friendlier approach! Whether it’s someone else or me talking about what should or could be done, the word could just seems friendlier.
So, should WE use “could have” instead of “should have?” Or, should (or could:-) the previous question be worded better by asking, could we have used ‘could have,’ instead of ‘should have?’ :-)
Wow, I don’t know how to answer that one!
What do you think?