Three English Words that Invite Repeated Failure

I would have made the bed but Spot was sleeping

Could, Should and Would with an added ‘A’ become the proverbial couldA shouldA wouldA. Basically these are the biggest cop out in the English language! They means you could have’, ‘should have’ or ‘would have’ done something, but you didn’t do it! For whatever reason, the fact is you just didn’t do it. Is there anything that could be more lame that that?

Hmm, I’ll take care of that problem some other time

Once you say these words you are pretty much out of options. You missed your chance. The boat left you. You lost the job. Worst of all, you can lie prone on your back smirking because you have washed your hands of all blame for your outcomes. There is always a reason why you didn’t do what you could have done and the reason is never you! It is time to take CouldA ShouldA WouldA out into the bright sunlight and look at them, with a magnifying glass! Or perhaps throw them in the garbage!

Where did we pick up these gems and how did they change our lives?

These words are fine by themselves but when they are combined with have (could have) they are a time bomb. By saying these words we can hide the fact that we did not do it. Someone or something else is responsible. The action could have been done but it was not. This results in going through life suffering hardships abuse and failures and yet remaining blameless. As long as we are blameless we can relax. Someone or something else is to blame for all our failures when we say things like:

“I could have been a famous athlete but my parents wanted me to study law.”   

Now it may be true that your parents wanted you to study law and did not encourage you to be an athlete. Maybe they were not athletically inclined or thought sports were a waste of time. Maybe they didn’t have enough money to support you through a rigorous  training period and wanted you to get a ‘useful’ career. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Whatever the reason it is easier to blame someone else than ourselves.

As long as we place the responsibility for our outcomes on other people and outward circumstances, we can lament about what we couldA, shouldA, wouldA done. We can be blameless. We don’t have to take responsibility for all the things we didn’t do because after all we could have done them but something got in the way. And it’s pretty rare to hear someone say:  

“I could have been a famous athlete but I was too lazy to practice every day”

The fact is we remain blameless and that is very convenient. I mean how would you feel if you didn’t make your dreams come true and at the same time you admitted that it was your own fault? That is why is it so hard to delete the couldA, shouldA and wouldA crutches? We may want to be blameless because it is too painful to take the blame.

Or is there a deeper reason? Could it be that we don’t really believe we could ever have been a great athlete? That hits you a little lower, below the belt. It is more painful than saying we were too lazy. And it’s also more painful than blaming someone else. And regardless of which degree of pain you choose the fact remains that the deed did not get done. Worse of all, the pain, regret, and personal abuse you give yourself can last for a lifetime.  

CouldA, ShouldA, WouldA are the perfect alibi in all cases. They are the three words in English that invite repeated failure. Blaming someone else, blaming our lack of action or blaming the fact that we don’t believe we could do it, all produce the same result. The thing we wanted did not get done. Only dedicated action could have changed the outcomes. 

Turning the tide begins not only by eliminating these three words from our vocabulary but by admitting the truth–the underlying reason why we  did not try hard enough or believe strongly enough in ourselves to accomplish what we really wanted.

I had a sudden aha about this one day when I was conducting a conversation class. I asked the students to name their wildest dream or fantasy about what they would like to be or do, They were to have no considerations about lack of money, resources, support or obstacles.

Take voice lessons

The students named dream professions and careers that were nothing like what they were studying. Then they asked me what I would like to be. I told them that I wanted to be a famous singer. It is true that it would be a dream come true for me if I could sing beautifully and express my strongest emotions. Then I jokingly added: “I guess it will have to wait for my next lifetime.”  

I had actually shared this dream with others before but in my mind underneath it I had used the third excuse. I believed that I had zero talent for the dream. After the class I was pondering on everybody’s dream. I’d always wished I could sing. Suddenly I had a profound realization.

I had never taken a singing lesson in my whole life!

Now how ridiculous can that be? Granted that I probably didn’t have any talent. Yet people come to me all the time and say they can’t draw and I tell them they can easily learn even if they have no talent. Yet, I had never ever bothered to take a singing class!

Talent is a real factor but the desire and will to learn something is just as much a factor. And you are never going to learn something if you don’t take the first step. Throw shouldA, couldA and wouldA out of your vocabulary bank and to take lessons even if you believe you have no talent. 






6 thoughts on “Three English Words that Invite Repeated Failure

  1. Inna Agafonova

    Coulda, shoulda, woulda are informal ways of saying could have, should have, would have?

  2. Leona Wellington

    Yes, when people complain a lot and blame others for their outcomes we often just tell them: “coulda, shoulda, woulda” (short for could have etc.) as a way to remind them of how useless it is to say this. Grammatically speaking it is perfectly correct to say “I could have finished my homework”, for example, but saying it self defeating because it means: “I didn’t do it”.

    For ESL/EFL learners this construction is a very amusing way of advancing English language skills. Make it fun through exaggeration by following it up with excuses like: “I could have finished my homework, but my dog ate my pen.”

    In this blog, I just wanted to point out the psychological implications of such a construction. Sometimes the language we use is a reflection of our mental beliefs. Only by awareness can we make improvements.

    • Inna Agafonova

      Thank you for explanation. It’s interesting to know about a new aspect of this structure.

      • Leona Wellington

        Well, so we see all is not lost, in this week’s post I brought some hope back into the language, by showing three more ways on how these same modal constructions can be hopeful and optimistic. The good thing is that using different approaches to the same constructions provides lots of additional practice for students and it is practice that facilitates acquisition.

  3. Carmen

    Nice post. Thank you for sharing. 👍

  4. Professor John D Haynes

    These modals are very interesting!

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