November 17th, 2004
A how-many-pound gorilla? / could of
by Barbara Wallraff
Garth Kriewall, of Port Huron, Mich., writes: “A friend said something about a 500-pound gorilla the other day, and I responded, ‘The gorilla weighs 800 pounds.’ He said no, it was a 500-pound gorilla. We turn to you: Just how big is the gorilla? And where did he (she?) come from? Why a gorilla rather than, say, an ox or a manatee?”
Dear Garth: In real life, according to Dr. Colleen McCann, the chief primatologist at the Bronx Zoo, a wild adult male gorilla might weigh 400 pounds, and a typical adult female weighs about half that. So if you have in mind an animal that makes a huge impression, it should be male. But the gorilla in expressions like “the X-pound gorilla that is the United States” isn’t real -- it’s a gorilla of the imagination. It seems to have originated in a couple of children’s jokes: “Where does an X-pound gorilla sit?” “Anywhere it wants to.” And “What do you call an X-pound gorilla?” “Sir.”
David Janower, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I see the locution ‘could of’ more and more in novels. I suspect it’s an attempt to make a character sound colloquial. But I’m afraid that the younger generation has no idea that ‘could of’ is improper. Do you have an opinion about this?”
Dear David: You bet I do. Once in a blue moon, “could of” actually is correct -- for instance, “I gathered up what I could of my possessions, and fled.” But almost always it should be “could have” instead: “I could have been in big trouble!” English isn’t a phonetic language. What someone writes on a page isn’t an exact guide to what readers will hear in their minds or say aloud. Writing “could of” in sentences like my second example just shows that the writer lacks a clear understanding of how English works.
© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.