Listening and speaking: When helping verbs aren't helpful

When confronting grief, you 'coulda' had a V-8. Or not.

WASHINGTON, February 9. 2012 – A number of years ago, a tile trivet with a little adage glazed onto its surface design happened to catch my fancy. It was one of those El Cheapo, dollar store trinkets that happened to be less useful in real life than it was cute. The adage: “Put sugar in what you say, and salt in what you hear.”

At the time, my husband thought it was pretty hokey and very clichéd. Of course, we were both considerably more sophisticated in those days as all young couples are. Which simply means we knew a lot less then than we do now. 

A not-so-trivial trivet.

A not-so-trivial trivet. (Credit: Frances Ponick.)

But back to that timeworn cliché. Think about it and how we might adapt it to a useful purpose. Why not add a little sweetness to your speech, and listen with a grain of salt?

Recently, I decided to broaden my WTC column topic from a focus on dealing with grief to the broader concern of more effective communication. But in so doing, the very last thing I expected was to have a fresh, up close and personal encounter with grief once again. As I began to write this column, my brother was close to death from cancer. And now he is gone. 

When you confront personal tragedy and death, there are a few words/phrases that steer you toward paths and byways that are best off remaining unvisited: “shoulda,” “oughta,” “coulda,” and “woulda.” Or, more properly, “should have,” “ought to,” “could have,” and “would have.”

The grammarians call these “modal auxiliary verbs.” In the real world, they’re commonly known as helping verbs, at least among the ever-shrinking universe of individual’s who’ve actually been taught the elements of English grammar. But the problem with the helping verbs under discussion here is that they’re often deployed when people discuss the factual aspects of situations that don’t and can’t exist. This is at best useless and at worst damaging both to the discussion and often to the individuals involved.

Why are these particular helping verbs such a bad idea in practice?

Considering what should, ought, could, or would have been might initially seem to be comforting when discussing a family member or friend who has recently died. And maybe sometimes it is. But more likely, you’re inviting chaos theory to take hold in your brain with highly unpredictable results. 

Indulging in thoughts of what could or might have been can ultimately cause you to wage battles in your imagination in order to create substitute possibilities and scenarios that have nothing to do with what has just occurred. Things that woulda, coulda, shoulda, or oughta have been will simply never be when it comes to the deceased. 

Wallowing in such thoughts and language constructions can have seriously negative effects over time. Instead of productively using the intellect to deal with the reality–which, granted, can be very hard to confront–people who theorize about what might have been just end up replacing reality with regrets, recriminations, and theoretical outcomes that make a present tragedy seem even worse than it is.

Granted, this kind of theorizing is okay when discussing literary tragedies like Oedipus and Hamlet. Hamlet in particular is a play loaded with past, present, and future shouldas, oughtas, couldas and wouldas. Modal auxiliary verbs are quite useful when engaging in classroom discussions, explications, and theoretical scenarios. But using the helping verbs under discussion here when discussing a real-life tragedy is frequently counter-productive. 

In the midst of real suffering and real death, those lessons we do learn usually arrive uninvited. There’s no need to seek new lessons or attempt to introduce them via might-have-beens. After a death, there’s no way you can alter the life of the deceased, or the reality of your loss by dreaming up conjectural scenarios that never were and never can be.

In the end, you simply can’t change the past. But you can ruin the present, and perhaps the future, by bemoaning the past and trying to negate it with an unconvincing, false, conjectural narrative that fails to confront and deal with reality. 

Like that little trivet says, “Put sugar in what you say, and salt in what you hear.” Be kind and understanding toward the bereaved. But try to stick to the facts, and avoid going down the primrose path of sentimental fantasy. It’s a journey that often ends up worse than the reality it’s attempting to displace.


Frances Ponick’s bookOnly Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert atAllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter,Facebook, and/orLinkedIn

This article is the copywritten property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media.


This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Frances Ponick

Fran Ponick is a speaker, author, commentator, teacher, and coach. She has decades of experience in technical, business, marketing, and proposal writing and editing, and has won awards in journalism, formal poetry, and acting. She has also served as a consultant to DoD. Her book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available from


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