Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerkby Bill Walsh
These are interesting times for word nerds. We ate, shot and left, bonding over a joke about a panda and some rants about greengrocers who abuse apostrophes. We can go on Facebook and vow to judge people when they use poor grammar. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style inspired sentimental reveries. Grammar Girl's tally of/i>
These are interesting times for word nerds. We ate, shot and left, bonding over a joke about a panda and some rants about greengrocers who abuse apostrophes. We can go on Facebook and vow to judge people when they use poor grammar. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style inspired sentimental reveries. Grammar Girl's tally of Twitter followers is well into six digits. We can't get enough of a parody of the Associated Press Stylebook, of all things, or a collection of "unnecessary" quotation marks.
Could you care less? Does bad grammar or usage "literally" make your head explode? Test your need for this new book with these sentences:
"Katrina misplaced many residents of New Orleans from their homes."
"Sherry finally graduated college this year."
"An armed gunman held up a convenience store on Broadway yesterday afternoon."
Pat yourself on the back if you found issues in every one of these sentences, but remember: There is a world out there beyond the stylebooks, beyond Strunk and White, beyond Lynne Truss and Failblogs. In his long-awaited follow-up to Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style, while steering readers and writers on the proper road to correct usage, Walsh cautions against slavish adherence to rules, emphasizing that the correct choice often depends on the situation. He might disagree with the AP Stylebook or Merriam-Webster, but he always backs up his preferences with logic and humor.
Walsh argues with both sides in the language wars, the sticklers and the apologists, and even with himself, over the disputed territory and ultimately over whether all this is warfare or just a big misunderstanding. Part usage manual, part confessional, and part manifesto, Yes, I Could Care Less bounces from sadomasochism to weather geekery, from "Top Chef" to Monty Python, from the chile of New Mexico to the daiquiris of Las Vegas, with Walsh's distinctive take on the way we write and talk. Yes, I Could Care Less is a lively and often personal look at one man's continuing journey through the obstacle course that some refer to, far too simply, as "grammar."
“Reading Yes, I Could Care Less is like bellying up to your favorite neighborhood bar while a cranky yet lovable uncle holds forth on the perils of comma splices and misplaced hyphens. Walsh is combative and funny, and he doesn't suffer fools gladly In short, Walsh brings some welcome newsroom swagger and regular-guy moxie into the often prim world of style and syntax.” The Washington Post
“A frisky reminder that usage issues are part convention, part passion.” Kirkus Reviews
“You should be so lucky as to have Bill Walsh as your editor. Pay attention. Be clear. Be precise. Don't be a jerk.” Baltimore Sun
“If you dream about correcting the office grammar Nazi, pick up Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh's witty book Yes, I Could Care Less.” The Washingtonian
“How can you not love a language maven who admits up front (well, in the Epilogue anyway) that he's nuts? And who wouldn't be? Bill Walsh has to walk a fine line. He's enough of a pickypants to satisfy readers of The Washington Post, but he never crosses the line into jerkitude. Or hardly ever. (Give up the hyphen, Bill. The word is email.) Oh, and did I mention that's he's funny? Armed gunmen, he tells us, are ‘the worst kind.' And you probably think you know what domestic beer is. But as the author can tell you, it's in the eye of the bartender.” Patricia T. O'Conner, author of Woe Is I and, with Stewart Kellerman, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.
“In his third volume of musings and pronouncements on language, Bill Walsh argues persuasively that there's room at the table for both prescriptivists and descriptivists--or what he calls ‘the sticklers' and ‘the spoilsports.' With keen intelligence, dry humor, and panache, he exhorts us not only to think more critically about how we write and speak but also to strive for ‘tiny acts of elegance' in that ‘slippery and elusive' realm called standard American English. Some will call Walsh a demigod of usage. Others will call him a demagogue. I call him, oxymoronically, our most amiable curmudgeon of style.” Charles Harrington Elster, author of The Accidents of Style and Verbal Advantage
“What Walsh calls his ‘curmudgeon's stylebook' contains such useful items as differentiating names of peoples. . . . His ‘gray areas' are stimulating.” William Safire, On Language, New York Times Magazine on The Elephants of Style
“More from Bill Walsh! I love it. He's packed The Elephants of Style with his wisdom and expertise to help any writer look good.” Barbara Wallraff, former language columnist for The Atlantic Monthly, on The Elephants of Style
“A mother lode for language lovers.” American Journalism Review on Lapsing Into a Comma
“Bill Walsh is a stylist with a sense of humor, a rare commodity these days.” Frank Mankiewicz, former president, NPR, on Lapsing Into a Comma
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Read an Excerpt
Caring, More or Less
ARE PEOPLE JUST CARELESS?
A turd becomes a fossil.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Could care less is hardly the most pressing issue in modern English usage, or even my biggest pet peeve. Yes, I could care less, but I could also care more. (I don’t like to brag, but I’d say my level of caring is precisely where it should be.) Still, the phrase is a handy litmus test: so basic, and yet people get so acidic about it.
In this corner are the sticklers, the prescriptivists. We are the copy editors, English teachers, usage mavens, armchair grammarians and others who revel in dos and don’ts and in our own opinions, who prescribe usage. If you’re a stickler, you deplore the idea of using could care less to mean couldn’t care less. What could be more obvious than a preference for saying what you mean over saying the exact opposite? “One of the surest ways to show the world that you are a slipshod stylist,” writes Charles Harrington Elster in The Accidents of Style, “is to write I could care less instead of I couldn’t care less.”
In the other corner are the descriptivists who pooh-pooh our fun. Spoilsports. They emphasize that the language is what its speakers make it, and that speakers handle that responsibility just fine. They see the glass as half full, while we’re arguing over whether half full gets a hyphen. They are the linguists and those who have fallen under the linguists’ spell, the laissez-faire realists who take their pleasure in stepping back, hands off, and describing how language is used. Their only strong opinions are about those who have strong opinions. Jan Freeman, a self-described “recovering nitpicker” and former language columnist at the Boston Globe, calls the could care less issue “one of the great language peeves of our time.” Surveying a vast field of sticklers who “continue to insist that ‘I could care less’ really must mean ‘I care to some extent,’” she retorts: “But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.”
@TheSlot: In spat with partner Vanessa on “The Amazing Race,” Ralph says, “I could care less.” She snaps, “COULDN’T care less!”
Sifting through the claims and counterclaims about how couldn’t care less mutated into its literal opposite and just how wrong or perfectly fine that is, I find it telling just how often people feel the need to explain the literal meanings of the competing versions. Couldn’t care less is oblique. It’s an intentional double negative, as opposed to the ain’t-got-none kind, so processing the meaning requires a couple of seconds’ thought. (Who has time for that?) Complicating matters further if you’re the literal type, the original expression is hyperbolic. Think about it: When someone says “I couldn’t care less” (or says “I could care less” and means “I couldn’t care less”), how often is the subject at hand truly the one thing that person cares least about in the whole wide world? You might say you couldn’t care less about the color of the dress that the first lady wore to the State of the Union address, but you’d be exaggerating for effect. I could no doubt come up with plenty of things you care even less about—maybe the color of the garment worn by a Bulgarian farm wife you’ve never heard of before and will never hear of again. Conversely and sort of perversely, saying “I could care less” would virtually always be literally true, even if it’s the opposite of what you meant.
A REEL MESS
“Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”
What was bumpy in All About Eve was the night, not the ride.
Decades of Disparagement
Could care less was apparently born in the 1950s. Yes, another baby boomer! Ben Zimmer, the prominent language writer and former dictionary editor, found it in the Washington Post in 1955. “Couldn’t care less,” interestingly, isn’t much older—Zimmer traces it to 1944. Jan Freeman dug up the earliest known complaint about the variant, a 1960 letter to Ann Landers. Ann sided with the complainer, to the extent that she cared about the issue (yes, she said that extent couldn’t have been less). For the next few decades, those who cared enough to write about the dispute agreed with her verdict, if not her lack of ardor. In his Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971), Theodore M. Bernstein of the New York Times bemoaned the “senseless abbreviated form” but observed that it “has not really taken hold.” Bernstein opined that people shorten the expression “because their hearing is defective or because they are in an inordinate hurry, or merely because they think it cute.”
Another Timesman, William Safire, was ready to write an obituary for “could care less” less than a decade later. “Happily,” he said in an On Language column included in a 1980 anthology, the expression “seems to be petering out,” having peaked in 1973. He pointed to the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, which called it “an ignorant debasement of the language.” (In the same entry, Freeman points out, Isaac Asimov said, “I don’t know people stupid enough to say this.” Ah, those were the days.) Safire concluded: “Farewell, ‘could care less’! You symbolized the exaltation of slovenliness, the demeaning of meaning, and were used by those who couldn’t care less about confusing those who care about the use of words to make sense.” The eulogy was premature, and writing in the Times in 1983, Safire observed that “the short form is understood and the long form would be regarded as the sort of thing a visiting Martian might say.” But he wasn’t giving up; in the same column, he spun around to venturing that the phrase would atrophy from disuse.
If only. Safire and Bernstein are no longer with us, but could care less lives on, in speech and writing, in sticklers’ peeves and spoilsports’ rationalizations. The battle lines are predictable. The not-shy prescriptivist Robert Hartwell Fiske, in his Dictionary of Unendurable English, says, “However it is meant, whatever the speaker’s intention and inflection, the phrase could care less means just the opposite of the one it is so often misused for.” In his Common Errors in English Usage, Paul Brians says, “People who misuse this phrase are just being careless.”
Bryan A. Garner, in his authoritative Garner’s Modern American Usage, disapproves of the expression but puts it at Stage 3 on his Language-Change Index, halfway between “rejected” and “fully accepted.” That means it’s “commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”
In Word Court, Barbara Wallraff defends the usage as an informal though illogical idiom but says it’s “not considered appropriate for formal speech or writing.”
Webster’s New World Guide to Current American Usage summarizes the history and concludes that “the efforts of conservative English-speakers are not likely to be successful, for could care less seems too well established to be dislodged now.”
@TheSlot: Care for some whip cream on your Belgium waffle? And how about some more ice tea?
On the let-it-be side of the spectrum, Jan Freeman has plenty of company. John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, like Freeman a self-styled reformed stickler, says that could care less is an idiom and that idioms are inherently illogical. “You may not care for could care less, but I could care less about your objections,” he writes on his blog. “And frankly, apart from the tiny company of peevers, no one else gives a tinker’s damn either.” Freeman, writing in the Boston Globe, elaborates on the idiom notion: “So let’s stash the phrase in the ‘idioms’ bin, along with ‘head over heels’ and ‘have your cake and eat it too,’ and forget about it. Truly, there is nothing more to say.”
A DICTIONARY DISSENT
Maybe I’m just a pretentious person who hangs out with other pretentious people, but I’ve never heard someone say “a cooter mint”—it’s always the French pronunciation, and I think the word should get the French spelling. The Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries agree, leaving Webster’s New World—which is the basis for most U.S. newspapers’ style decisions—as the outlier.
Meanwhile, I’ll be calling an envelope an EN-velope and calling a niche a nitch and calling the AHN-velope and neeche people pretentious, so maybe consistency isn’t my forte. (That’s fort, not for-TAY.)
The Logic of Sarcasm
I’m not so sure there’s nothing more to say, and not only because I promised the publisher 60,000 to 70,000 words here. I used to think have your cake and eat it too was nonsensically redundant, until I realized that the have means “possess,” not “eat.” Other sticklers point out that eat your cake and have it too would be more logical. That might be a good edit, if we were allowed to edit old sayings, but I see no illogic in the standard word order. Head over heels is illogical, but it’s truly an idiom, in the sense that a logical version does not exist. When you open the catalogue to shop for an expression, heels over head is not there. It may have once been extant, but now it’s extinct. The logical I couldn’t care less, on the other hand, is right there in front of you. It’s readily available. Not only that: Unlike some sticklerisms, it costs no more than the illogical alternative. When we insufferable pedants choose careering down the street rather than careening down the street, or stamping ground over stomping ground, or even running the gantlet rather than running the gauntlet, we pay a price. Our words might be received with raised eyebrows or blank stares or “What are you talking about?” or even “That’s not the right word!” The variants are well on their way to eclipsing the originals. But couldn’t care less is alive and well. It’s an unremarkable expression. There’s an expression for such expressions, and that expression is “That’s the expression.” Does a failed attempt to reach for another expression even count as an idiom?
Some defenders of could care less bravely venture out of the immunity-from-making-sense zone and argue that the expression is sarcastic, or at least ironic. McIntyre covers both bases, observing in another post that “when I ask if anyone has ever taken ‘I could care less’ in any sense other than the ironic, no volunteer has stepped forward.” In the traditional sarcasm model, I suppose, one would be sneering “I could care less” with the same tone used for “I just love looking at pictures from your vacation in Gary, Indiana.” Or—different tone, same result—the expression is shorthand, a clipped way of saying “I could care less, but I don’t.” A modern variant offers myriad choices for the colorfully profane: “I could give a [bleep].” (Imagine Rhett Butler’s line updated to “My dear, I could give a damn.”)
@TheSlot: “There are those who disagree with me. Such people are best ignored, if not shunned by polite society.” #firstdraft #workinprogress
These observers, in many cases, see the sarcasm as obvious. In his book The Language Instinct, psychologist Steven Pinker chastises people like me who fail to hear this in the spoken form, who have a “tin ear for prosody (stress and intonation) and an obliviousness to the principles of discourse and rhetoric.” Contending that the stress in I could care less is on the care, whereas in the original expression it’s on the couldn’t, he cites this as an illustration that the newer version “is not illogical, it’s sarcastic.” He continues: “The point of sarcasm is that by making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, ‘Oh yeah, as if there was something in the world that I care less about.’” (He further attributes the “could care less” usage to “today’s youth” and “teenagers,” which strikes me as even stranger than the sarcasm assertion. Plenty of my usage peeves are generational, but this isn’t one of them.)
Michael Quinion, on his World Wide Words site, endorses the Pinker theory and says, “The intent is obviously sarcastic—the speaker is really saying, “As if there was something in the world that I care less about.’” He goes on to speculate: “There’s a close link between the stress pattern of I could care less and the kind that appears in certain sarcastic or self-deprecatory phrases that are associated with the Yiddish heritage and (especially) New York Jewish speech. Perhaps the best known is I should be so lucky!, in which the real sense is often ‘I have no hope of being so lucky,’ a closely similar stress pattern with the same sarcastic inversion of meaning.”
To me, the intonation is flat, not sarcastic—and, though my Yiddish is pretty rusty, most certainly not Jackie Mason-sarcastic. Garner writes: “Although some apologists argue that could care less is meant to be sarcastic and not to be taken literally, a more plausible explanation is that the -n’t of couldn’t has been garbled in sloppy speech and sloppy writing.” (Apologists. Sloppy speech and sloppy writing. I like Garner.) He quotes a linguist named Atcheson L. Hench, who wrote in 1973: “A listener has not heard the whole phrase; he has heard a slurred form. Couldn’t care has two dental stops practically together, dnt. This is heard only as d and slurring results. The outcome is I c’d care less.”
On Language Log, Mark Liberman vigorously defends could care less as “a well-accepted colloquial expression in contemporary American English” but also disputes the sarcasm idea. “It’s a reeaallly great hypothesis—I just looovvve it,” Liberman says of Pinker’s passage. (No, he doesn’t. I made that last quote up.) Liberman does, however, sort of imply that Pinker has a tin ear for prosody (stress and intonation). He questions (a) whether Pinker is accurately capturing the way people say those phrases and (b) whether, even if he’s right about the way people talk, sarcasm can necessarily be inferred from it. I’m not a linguist—I don’t have access to Mark Liberman’s fancy voice-o-meters or even, presumably, his ear for prosody (stress and intonation)—but that’s in line with what I’ve felt since I first heard the same argument. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “I could care less” said with a sarcastic tone. And besides, can you be sarcastic on behalf of a third party? I’ve certainly never heard “He could care less” or “She could care less” or “They could care less” said with a sarcastic tone. And it’s not easy to write with sarcastic stress and intonation, at least not without italics or capital letters or boldface. Liberman also dismisses the notion that the usage is a youth phenomenon. (Hey, we’re getting along pretty well for two people who disagree about the main point here.)
@TheSlot: Walsh’s Law: Whichever horn of a usage dilemma you grab, your editor or your slot or the person proofing the page will choose the other one.
Liberman’s analysis of what is happening, given that sarcasm isn’t happening, is fascinating and complicated, full of cool new terms (negation by association, the minimal object, negative polarity item, the contractual associate of the negation). It’s all rather inside-baseball, but I’m sort of the linguistics equivalent of that Jonah Hill character in Moneyball, and so I think I understand it pretty well. I think the bottom line is pretty close to the one Garner cites. People say “could care less” not out of an intentional desire to be ironic or sarcastic, but rather because the original phrase branched off and formed a mutation in which, for whatever reason, the n’t/not was lost.
Arnold Zwicky, another of my favorite Language Loggers, weighs in on the Liberman-Pinker prosody argument by pointing out that the reason people use could care less today need not be the same reason it came about in the first place. Today it’s “an idiom with negative import that happens to contain no standard negative marker,” perhaps sometimes used with sarcasm, Zwicky says, and while Liberman’s non-sarcasm cosmology seems valid, it need not be the whole story. Sarcasm may have played a role as well, Zwicky allows.
In another elaborate attempt to explain all this, in a 2004 Language Log post, Stanford linguistics professor Christopher Potts lists couldn’t care less among “a handful of English constructions in which, quite surprisingly, one can add or remove a negation without change of meaning.” I’ll give him credit for the surprise, but I don’t see his other examples as analogous. Could care less, he notes, “comes in for a hard time from some prescriptivists,” whereas “the others haven’t caused a stir, as far as I know.” All with good reason, I say. The first of his five examples, one that he credits partially to Paul Postal of New York University, is the vulgar minimizer: “Eddie knows squat [or jack or beans or diddley] about phrenology” means the same thing as “Eddie doesn’t know squat about phrenology.” But that one is easy enough to explain. The vulgarity in question is by definition worthless, and the less-than-worthless construction is a perfectly common and logical intensifier. If I like Chevys, I might say your Ford is [bleep]. If I’m feeling particularly pro-GM that day, I might say your Ford isn’t [bleep]. It doesn’t even rise to the level of [bleep].
Potts adds his own examples to the one Postal discussed:
“That’ll teach you not to tease the alligators” and “That’ll teach you to tease the alligators.”
“I wonder whether we can’t find some time to shoot pool this evening” and “I wonder whether we can find some time to shoot pool this evening.”
“You shouldn’t play with the alligators, I don’t think” and “You shouldn’t play with the alligators, I think.”
“I couldn’t care less about monster trucks” and “I could care less about monster trucks.”
I probably shouldn’t be poking the linguistic alligators, but here goes:
Learning not to tease the alligators and learning to tease the alligators are two sides of the same coin, and so the sarcastic “That’ll teach you to tease the alligators” works as a wry twist on the straightforward statement “That’ll teach you not to tease the alligators.” Similarly, we ask “How do you like that?” both as a straightforward question about a positive situation and as an ironic comment about a negative situation.
To wonder about the possibility of billiards-related activity is, likewise, a binary equation; by definition, you are also wondering about the alternative, which is an absence of billiards-related activity. Expressing either implies the other. The spoilsports love to mock the sticklers’ obsession with taking double negatives literally, but I have to point out that the “could(n’t) care less” analogue of the pool-playing example would look more like the difference between “I can’t play pool with you today” (“Sorry. Some other time?”) and “I can’t not play pool with you today” (“I can’t wait!”).
The “I don’t think” thing is a bit of a red herring, more a speech tic than a convention of usage. You wouldn’t be likely to see it in writing. To the extent that it merits analysis, though, I think the “I don’t think” version is quite a bit different from the “I think” version. The latter is a straightforward expression, whereas the former is a repetition for emphasis, a way of saying “You shouldn’t play with the alligators. No, I don’t think you should.”
To declare which side of a line one’s degree of caring falls on is not binary in the same way as the alligator-teasing and pool-playing examples. A true parallel in the billiards case would be something like “Do I care about monster trucks?” The gator case is what sarcasm really looks like, as opposed to the fake sarcasm the apologists see in “I could care less.” The parallel would be a simple “I really care,” with its meaning reversible through sarcastic intonation.
The vulgar minimizer—or minimal scatological object (MSO), to use Liberman’s term—is a more compelling explanation, though I still think it’s flawed. “I could give a [bleep]” is pretty darn close to the idea of a sarcastic “I could care less,” but the sarcasm prosody (stress and intonation) in the profane example is clear. There’s an implied “like” (that’s “as if” to you sticklers). On top of that, consider the takes-a-second-to-sort-out complexity and built-in hyperbole of “I couldn’t care less.” If people have at least a little trouble figuring out what the original phrase literally means in the first place, is a sarcastic inversion of it really going to roll off the tongue?
@TheSlot: Social Security is a government program; social security might refer to whether you have a date Friday night.
Here’s how sarcasm works: You take an unambiguous phrase or sentence and say it in a tone, in a situation, or with a gesture or facial expression that makes it clear you mean the opposite. Your rival is marrying your ex, for whom you still have feelings? You might say, “I couldn’t be happier.” The idea that, sometime in the 1950s, people chose to take the hyperbolic double negative “I couldn’t care less” and express sarcasm by inventing a regular old singular-negative version, expecting it to be understood as sarcastic and therefore equivalent in meaning to the double negative, seems more than a little dubious. It’s a rather sophisticated bit of wordplay jujitsu. (How long would it take you to figure out what I meant, let alone whether I was being sarcastic, if I said, “I couldn’t be any less happy”?) And even if that story were true of the birth of “I could care less,” it would be a piss-poor attempt at sarcasm today to take an expression that nobody’s sure about in the first place and reverse it into something that to most people means the exact same thing and expect them to comprehend both the reversal and the sarcasm.
However the contrary-to-logic meaning of the expression got frozen in place, it seems clear to me that contemporary speakers are just unthinkingly pulling it off the word shelf, not using it with direct sarcastic intent.
Speaking of sarcasm rolling off the tongue (or not), consider the following examples. Here’s one from the late Columbia Journalism Review language columnist Evan Jenkins, in his book That or Which, and Why:
The article said the lawyer representing a murder victim’s family made it clear that the family wasn’t interested in cooperating with the media horde, “that the family could care less about exclusives.” But if those people could care less, they do care some, and that’s not at all what the writer meant.
Jenkins’s analysis might strike the spoilsports as rote and naive, but please note that he’s talking about a news article. The writer was simply trying to make a straightforward point, not trying to be ironic or sarcastic, as some of the apologists would have us believe all users of the expression are doing.
@TheSlot: The Washington Post uses “just deserts” correctly and is deluged with angry missives from self-styled experts hungry for desserts.
And looky here, in a New York Times story about rooms without a view:
“It will be the baby’s room until he grows up,” Ms. O’Connor said, “and babies could care less about views.”
That’s one sarcastic baby. (Call Child Protective Services!) While not recognizing the written form as evidence against the sarcasm theory, Quinion (he of the Yiddish corollary) concludes: “And because it is hard to be sarcastic in writing, it loses its force when put on paper and just ends up looking stupid. In such cases, the older form, while still rather colloquial, at least will communicate your meaning—at least to those who really could care less.”
If You Don’t Know, You Can’t Care
Setting aside the origins of could care less, let’s say there are three main categories of English speakers with regard to the phrase: those who know there’s a mismatch between the words and the meaning and who care, those who know but don’t care, and those who haven’t a clue.
[ENTER: FRANK GORSHIN]
Riddle me this, Batman: When is a common expression, understood by all, an error?
[ENTER: ADAM WEST, TRAILED BY BURT WARD]
When it’s an attempt to reach for a different expression.
At Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum addresses the central argument between people like him and people more or less like me in scholarly fashion (and by that I mean Batman is barely mentioned at all) in an essay titled “‘Everything Is Correct’ Versus ‘Nothing Is Relevant.’” In explaining that people like me are mistaken if they think people like him never see a usage as wrong, he writes, “Speakers will sometimes speak or write in a way that exhibits errors (errors that they themselves would agree, if asked later, were just slip-ups).”
I think could care less is precisely that kind of error. Couldn’t care less isn’t rocket science, but it’s sufficiently complex that a speaker who has a life would have to stop and think a second to untangle what exactly that statement is saying about caring. And a lot of such speakers don’t bother. They say “could care less” because they’ve heard it all their lives and they are parrots. (That might be a little harsh, but let’s just say they’re closer to being parrots than they are to being semanticists.) The sarcasm explanation would be a great one, if it were true. I come from a long line of sarcastic people, and I know sarcasm and irony and ironic shorthand when I hear it. “Like I care” and “I could give a $%^@&” (and especially “I could give a *$*!!!#”) sound sarcastic. “I could care less” sounds like “I couldn’t care less,” and with good reason: The latter is what people are thinking while they’re saying the former.
@TheSlot: It begs the question: Did you try and literally infer you could care less?
So it’s not that we sticklers are accusing the care-less crowd of sitting down with freshly sharpened Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils and some scratch paper and trying their best but failing to solve the logic of not caring less. We’re simply saying that care-less-ness is carelessness. An expression that began as a turd fossilized into a little rock, and those little rocks are everywhere and, boy, are they handy. A lot of people reach for those stones without thinking about what they used to be, and that, no doubt, includes notables from Kurt Vonnegut to Khloe Kardashian. We sticklers, on the other hand, like a little thinking with our speaking. Sticklers are squeamish and have long memories and hold grudges, but normal people are no longer smelling a turd.
Some people who speak of caring less have internalized this “sarcasm” nonsense, but most would agree, if made aware, that they couldn’t care less. To exclude could care less from the category of “if only they knew” is to simultaneously underestimate the degree to which people would like to choose their words carefully and overestimate the degree to which people devote any effort to doing so.
Follow Your Nose
Still, whether or not the linguistic spoilsports would agree with me that care-less-ness passes the Pullum test, I suppose I’m agreeing with them that, in a sense, the four words have hardened into a single unit that means the opposite of its original components. Where we appear to differ is on how tainted it is by its origins, how much the whiff of the turd lingers.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994), which is widely seen as permissive when it comes to the nonstandard, is pretty sober on this one:
The reason why the negative particle was lost without changing the meaning of the phrase has been the subject of much speculation, most of it not very convincing. No one seems to have advanced the simple idea that the rhythm of the phrase may be better for purposes of emphatic sarcasm with could care less, which would have its main stress on care, than with couldn’t care less, where the stress would be more nearly equal on could and care. You, however, may not find this argument very convincing either.
Its conclusion is in line with the one reached by Wallraff and Quinion:
This is what our present evidence suggests: while could care less may be superior in speech for purposes of sarcasm, it is hard to be obviously sarcastic in print. This may explain why most writers, faced with putting the words on paper, choose the clearer couldn’t care less.
Mignon Fogarty, advice-centric as always in her Grammar Girl cape, puts it pretty simply: “Stick with couldn’t care less if you don’t want to irritate people.”
@TheSlot: I see “last August” in October. I sigh. I flip a coin.
A BUREAUCRATIC BUNGLE
It stopped being the Veterans Administration in 1989, when the agency became the Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs. Decades later, however, people haven’t gotten out of the “Veterans Administration” habit. Watch out for that. And there’s an additional complication. Because, conversationally, it was the Veterans Administration, it was appropriate to call that agency “the VA.” The abbreviation lives on, but the the is now an anachronism. It’s not “the Veterans Affairs,” so the initials should be used without the definite article: “She works for VA.”
A Coin Toss?
In the politics of language as in the politics of politics, the sides in a debate sometimes give no ground in the face of a furious attack, even when such a position is unreasonable. I’ll be charitable and guess that’s what’s going on here: The spoilsports, in their backlash against half a century’s worth of anti-could care less peeving, only seem to be maintaining that there is not a milligram’s worth of reason to tip the scale in favor of couldn’t care less. They couldn’t possibly consider the matter a coin-toss proposition, could they?
I guess they’re saying we’re being churlish when we look down on people for using could care less. (I’m half churlish, on my mother’s side.) Well, people do what they do, and other people think what they think, and I don’t see why language should be different from the rest of life. If you wear sweatpants in public, I might think you’re a slob. If you make a habit of parroting illogical expressions, I might think you’re on the slow side, or at least not much of a critical thinker. (If you flash your Official Linguist badge, I’ll let you off, like a patrol officer deferring to a speeding detective who flips on the siren and sticks one of those “gumball” lights on the roof of his unmarked car.)
Training a microscope on that peeve was fun (if you bought this book because it’s your peeve, I hope you’re getting your money’s worth), but the analysis isn’t especially important. The important thing—and the linguists will agree with me on this—is that you get to take such analysis for what it’s worth. Even if I’m full of squat, if “could care less” is actually the greatest thing an English speaker could possibly say, I’m free to avoid it in my own writing, fix it in copy that I’m editing and ban it from any publication at which I’m the boss. And even if the linguists are full of squat and it’s a substandard usage, you’re free to go around saying it to every person you meet. See how much I care.
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Walsh
Meet the Author
Bill Walsh is a copy editor at The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1997. He is a regular presenter at the annual conferences of the American Copy Editors Society. Walsh is the author of Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style.
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This book was a delight to read. As he does on his blog, Author Bill Walsh, points out language follies, but does so without ranting. As the book's subtitle suggests, this book is also instructional aiding the reader in abstaining from jerk-like behavior while enjoying enjoying language snobbery. His points of "leaving room" and "tiny acts of elegance" in particular stuck with me. It isn't quite a how-to book, however. The "model" is more a collection of useful tips yielding the other three quarters of the book to entertainment.