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Still couldn't care less

It didn’t take long for the comments to roll in about the title of yesterday’s post, “I’m disinterested, and I could care less.” The commenters had little to say about disinterested, but they were keen to reproach me for using the erroneous and illogical could care less.

Thus they fell into the trap, giving me matter for another post.

Insufferable prig as I was in my long-ago youth — and well into what passes for maturity — I was never bothered by people who said, “I could care less.” I always knew that they meant that they couldn’t care less and that the two expressions were functionally interchangeable.

The Language Loggers have expended some energy on this topic, with Mark Liberman posting three times in 2004, July 8, July 13 and July 16. These posts are worth a look, because they largely demolish the objections.

Steven Pinker, writing in The Language Instinct, suggests that could care less was originally, and remains, ironic or sarcastic, communicating disdain. I suspect that there is a good deal to that, though Professor Liberman differs with Professor Pinker on that point. Something similar appears to be going on in the citations in Professor Liberman’s post about a similar pattern with scatological or obscene content : “I could give a [insert the expletive or chain of expletives of your choice].

What is indisputable, I think, is that whatever the origin, could care less is a stock expression, an idiomatic one. No native speaker misunderstands it. It is one of many phrases in English that do not mean what they literally say.

People object that it is illogical. There’s a misunderstanding there. Language has patterns that linguists and grammarians can describe, but they are not necessarily logical ones. Languages that assign gender to all nouns, for example, do so arbitrarily; there is no logical reason that a table should be feminine in French. In English, spelling is notoriously irregular. Logic, especially reasoning by analogy, is one of the things that gives us folk etymology.

English is a messy language, amalgating elements from Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and Latin. And since its origins, it has been relentlessly promiscuous, picking up vocabulary from street corners the world over.

No, if you are looking for logic in a language, I suggest that you have a go at Esperanto. It’s a shame if could care less abrades your delicate sensibilities, since there appears to be nothing to be done to relieve the irritation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 PM | | Comments (10)


Do the "couldn't care less" hordes also call up about "have your cake and eat it, too." My father, who loved to explore the illogicalities of language, often pointed out that the verbs in that expression are reversed. What we want is to still have our cake after we have eaten it, so the logical sequence would be "eat your cake and have it, too." I also enjoyed these discussions with him, best over a pre-prandial bourbon, not as a way of expressing an elitist or autocratic view of language, but more as a way of enjoying its mysteries and, as you put it, messiness.

Ah, bourbon.

I usually know what people mean when they use all sorts of slang, poor grammar, and often completely illiterate phrasing. If that's the standard, there are no rules, and pretty much anything we write is fine, no matter how we write it.

Use "I could care less" if you like it, but don't be surprised when people label you as someone about half a mile to the left on the bell curve.

I certainly would take much else you said seriously.

If you think that, you've got another thing coming.

Which raises the question: Shouldn't this be: "you've got another think coming" (and I'm not referring to how this should sound in Bawlmerese)?

Hear, hear, Mr. McIntyre!

Bucky what are you doing over here on the language blog? Checking to see if the feminists have quieted down so you can feel safe posting about women's volleyball over on EL's blog?

Sir McIntyre - if we go by the measure of knowing what people mean, why not just go back to grunting and gesturing?

p.s. What kind of bourbon do you favor?

Now, now, you should have seen from previous posts that I'm not an anything-goes man. But I do believe in picking fights that matter and avoiding those that don't.

As to bourbon: Old Forester for Manhattans, Maker's Mark for sipping when I feel flush, Woodford Reserve when I am actually flush.

Bourbon Girl - my relationship to Mr. McIntyre's blog is like my relationship to church. I drive by often; I go in and participate once in a while.

Bless you, my son.

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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
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