Unfulfilled potential – Marlon Brando and Modal Verbs

A scene from the classic movie ‘On the Waterfront’, in which Brando’s character, former boxer Terry Malloy, faces the reality that his life could’ve been (there’s your modal verb at work!) so very different if he hadn’t listened to his brother Charlie, played by Rod Steiger, who encouraged him to deliberately lose a boxing match.

Grammar fans among you will know that a modal verb + a perfect infinitive (have + past participle) is how we refer to past possibility, certainty etc. Here ‘could’ve been’ is the potential which poor Terry had that came to nothing. He also says to Charlie «You should’ve taken care of me», a perfect example of modal should and a perfect infinitive to express criticism or regret of past actions. Let’s face it, there’s nothing less than perfect in this amazing scene.

And instead of fame and success, what does Terry get – a one-way ticket to Palookaville, which is a pretty cool idiomatic way of saying you’re going nowhere, you’re a loser..

It’s worth noting the use of ‘coulda’, which is clearly written that way because of how it sounds. We always use contractions when we speak, so no one would ever say «I could have been a contender» (well, maybe Prince Charles, but certainly not you or I). These forms – coulda, shoulda, woulda – that you see all the time in lyrics, subtitles and similar mustn’t be used in any writing you do for exams, however informal the register, as they are essentially wrong. And you don’t want to end up saying «I could’ve been a contender in that Proficiency class», right?

Finally, here are a couple of links to cool songs that move along these lines.

Fave singer-songwriter Peter Case musing on the subject of the film and Kevin Rowland of legendary Birmingham band Dexy’s Midnight Runners about to board a train to that fateful destination.

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