baltimoresun.com

« Tell me all about it | Main | Still couldn't care less »

I'm disinterested, and I could care less

It comes as news to most of my students, semester after semester, that disinterested can mean impartial — not having an interest, or stake, in the issue, not having a dog in the fight. They read disinterested as not caring, not concerned, not interested in the sense of having curiosity or concern.

If I were Professor (adjunct) Harumph, I could sneer at their subliteracy and parade my own vast erudition. But my job is to fit them for working effectively as writers and editors, so I explain the realities:

Basics first. Both senses of the word are in use. They are active in the language. The question is not whether one is right and the other wrong, but which is appropriate.

Levels of usage must be considered. In the conversational or colloquial level, disinterested in the sense of uninterested appears to be common, perhaps dominant. As the language of journalism has become more conversational, disinterested in this sense also appears more frequently in writing. In more formal, and perhaps I can risk saying more sophisticated, levels of writing, the sense of impartiality can often be found: academic writing, for example, or serious books.

And there is the social dimension to consider. There are people, members of a small but vocal minority, who attach class or even ethical values to word usage. These are the people who will think less of you for ignorantly using disinterested for uninterested. They are uninformed but dogmatic, and they are out there. There’s no need to pull the coverlet over your head and hide from them, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you hear from them.

I say uninformed. To become better informed, have a look at Mark Liberman’s thoughtful post at Language Log. As it turns out, disinterested/uninterested is not a case of a pristine sense corrupted by ignorance, but a much more common phenomenon in language: an incomplete differentiation emerging from a tangle of historic usages. This will frustrate the prescriptivists and copy editors who want to insist that there is always a Right and a Wrong in usage, but I can’t help them.

I can try to help my students by advising to keep in mind the basics of rhetoric: What are you trying to say? Who is in your audience? What words, tropes and strategies will convey your meaning to the reader most precisely, without misunderstanding or distraction? There are choices to be made, and editing is making choices.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:26 AM | | Comments (18)
        

Comments

"I could care less" is one of my biggest pet peeves. I'm far from perfect on grammar or punctuation, but that's a logic issue...

It's interesting you dissect the "disinterested vs. uninterested" usage while misusing the "I could care less" phrase in the title.

The correct use is "I couldn't care less." If you could care less, then you could still care a little.

"I could care less" is wrong...it's "I couldn't care less."

If you could care less, then you still can care a little.

I agree with Kate - that illogical phrase drives me nuts!

Actually, the proper -- and logical -- phrase is, "I don't give a s--t."

I'd venture to say that Mr. McIntyre's tongue was in his cheek as he wrote the title.

Wasn't that his point -- that if you are disinterested (not having a stake in the issue) it's still possible you could care less, whereas if you were uninterested, you couldn't.

I prefer "I could care less." If I cared enough to work out the logic of the sentence, then I might say, "I couldn't care less," but in that case obviously I could care less, since I cared enough to work out the logic. But in fact, I could care less.

I do like to preserve the distinction between "disinterested" (meaning not partial) and "uninterested" (meaning I don't give a **).

I think they are useful. The people who don't preserve the distinction will know what I mean. And the people who do preserve the distinction will ALSO know what I mean, and not junk up my comments section with post after post about my choice of prefixes.

But I am intrigued by the idea of using "disinterested" to mean "was interested once, but not anymore"--sort of like disengaging. You have to be engaged once before you can become disengaged.

Not that I have many instances in which I would use that.

There is a difference between the words. There is a difference between (amongst???) assure/ensure/insure, too. People who use such words interchangeably risk the failure of getting their point across. Must I now always use "impartial" because Americans are too lazy to learn/remember the distinctions? I fear so.

Hmmm.

And those of us who studied economics realize that "indifferent" doesn't necessarily mean "uncaring" or "you go to heck."

whatever

Both are correct in the sense of describing something as uninteresting or undesirable.

Whereas "I could care less" does imply a degree of caring in the first place, it is not technically wrong, as it still describes the subject as not worthy of a certain level of caring. In other words, the person is expressing regret for initially caring more than he/she should.

"I couldn't care less" is a much stronger statement. However, blatantly stating that one is wrong without any consideration of the situation in which it is used in is misconception or, even worse, bigotry.

Why are Americans always bashed at being lazy for not using words appropriately when we aren't alone in our ignorance? Shouldn't the English speaking society as a whole be condemned?

Hang on, wait... you're TEACHING people and you use the phrase "I could care less"!!???

For christs sake, get your act together.

To the idiot who wrote:
Both are correct in the sense of describing something as uninteresting or undesirable.

Whereas "I could care less" does imply a degree of caring in the first place, it is not technically wrong, as it still describes the subject as not worthy of a certain level of caring. In other words, the person is expressing regret for initially caring more than he/she should.

"I couldn't care less" is a much stronger statement. However, blatantly stating that one is wrong without any consideration of the situation in which it is used in is misconception or, even worse, bigotry.


.... NO you IDIOT.... if you say "I could care less" that could very well mean you care a great deal.... in fact it could very well be the thing you care most about in your life and this universe.

Sigh. Stupid people.

When you discover a a native speaker of English who misunderstands "I could care less," please introduce him.

In the meantime, you're welcome to look at this subsequent post to see who some of the other stupid people are:

http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2008/08/still_couldnt_care_less.html

I can also recommend to you a number of reference books on English usage that you might find informative. Perhaps one on manners, too.

"I could care less" rolls off the tongue easier and is sarcastic. Everyone knows that you couldn't care less. Its funny to say "I could care less" because its rebellious and purposefully wrong. Plus it riles up all you wacky grammar people and leads to a million internet sites with people incensed! Obviously there is no logic involved with pissing you all off. Its just fun!!

"I couldn't care less" could imply that you couldn't care less than a certain degree of care no matter how hard you tried, while "I could care less" could imply that you could care less than an already incredibly low degree of care.

It's not rocket science. The fact that grammar Nazis can't understand such a simple concept is very telling of their grasp of logic.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
Baltimore Sun Facebook page
-- ADVERTISEMENT --

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected