Couldn't, Shouldn't, Wouldn't, Can't

The words that we use to convey meaning seem so inconsequential when we are in the act of using them. They pass from our minds to our lips in fractions of a second and hang in the air for barely longer again. We take what we have learned over years of education and abuse them as if they have no value, meaning or impact on the tangible aspects of our lives. But words matter. The words we use have a profound impact on the way we perceive and understand every tiny element of our lives.

Couldn't. Shouldn't. Wouldn't. Can't.

These 'words' are actually four contractions, words paired together so often that we developed universally understood punctuation marks and sounds so we could combine them quickly and fluidly in everyday speech. We came to use these terms so often that we agreed on a bastardisation of our language to save ourselves a few syllables a day.

Could not. Should not. Would not. Can not.

If we want to live full and accountable lives, we've got to stop the incessant use of these contractions. Their very use both demonstrates and changes the way we think about the things that we are referring to.

Few combinations of words in the English language are as disempowering as couldn't/shouldn't/wouldn't/can't. Using these terms tells ourselves and others that our own agency has been removed, regardless of whether that was what we intended to convey. Was there really nothing more you could have done, no feasible alternative solutions to the problems that arose in that specific situation? Most of the time, the honest answers to those questions is no, but these -n't contractions steal this opportunity for honesty away.

We can also use these terms to escape accountability for an outcome of a situation. When you obfuscate a person's agency by using one of these contractions, you also remove the space for accountability. Since there was nothing more we could have done, we cannot be blamed for any outcome.

Which is, if we're being frank, dishonest bullshit.

If we wanted to be truthful to ourselves and others, we could quite easily get to the core of these issues in a way that would be far more beneficial to ourselves that simply trying to bury any unfavourable outcomes underneath a pile of deceitful impossibilities.

You couldn't make it across town for lunch with that person you haven't seen for a while? It was not actually a physical impossibility: you chose not to for a number of different, complex reasons. You had work that afternoon and would've had to travel forty minutes to get there. Plus you're not sure if you wanted to see that person anyway. You might have wanted to get home to watch your favourite show. These things might add up, but you made a choice, so own it.

Even the seemingly obvious exceptions aren't really able to pass the test. As yet humans cannot fly unaided, therefore you might say that humans cannot fly. But what is really meant when some says that 'humans cannot fly'? Flying is not an end in of itself. If we want to get from one part of the world to another reasonably quickly we use commercial airline travel. If we want to experience the joy of seeing the world from a different perspective, we can hang-glide or sky dive. Things that are regarded as physical impossibilities aren't really impossible at all once you begin to understand what it is that people want to get out of those experiences.

The sheer volume of words and phrases we use everyday appears to have numbed us to the way these phrases impact the way we think, feel and act. Only rarely do we genuinely reflect on the choice of words we might have employed in specific situations. These n't contractions disempower us and allow those using them to conceal their accountability from themselves and others. I suggest that you stop using them from today until forever. Reprogramming our patterns of speech after decades of usage is a gradual but worthwhile process. Words impact the way we think. Treat like the powerful objects that they are.