Could you care less?

Posted by on August 06, 2013

© Digital Vision / Getty ImagesOver the years, I’ve heard many people say “I could care less” (meaning “I couldn’t care less”) in different contexts, usually informal and American. Not once have I found it confusing. But the phrase is frequently objected to, and therefore worth looking at more closely.

The problem is easily discerned: the expression is, on a superficial reading, illogical and counter-intuitive. How can “I could care less” mean “I couldn’t care less”? Yet it almost always does, and on the rare occasions when it’s meant literally, this is likely to be clear in the context. (Incidentally, I don’t think it’s normally meant sarcastically, as Steven Pinker has suggested.)

Lack of real-life confusion does not dissuade critics from peeving obtusely. David Mitchell presents the case for the prosecution entertainingly in this short video at the Guardian, in which he protests that the expression “makes no sense” because it implies that you do care, at least a little. He says “I could care less is absolutely useless as an indicator of how much you care.”

But that’s true only in a fantasy land where the expression and interpretation of language are tone deaf and bound strictly by formal logic. The point about idioms is that that’s not how they work. Logic has no power here. I may be opening a can of worms with this topic, but there is no can and there are no worms. Treating idioms this way is – to use Lane Greene’s choice phrase – “selective hyper-literalism”.

In speech, the stress pattern of an idiom can affect its interpretation, and so it is with “I could care less”. Stressing could signals to listeners that they should take the phrase at face value. Leaving it unstressed means we analyse it the same as we would “I couldn’t care less”. As a Negative Polarity Item, it has its own independent negative force – like “I could give a damn”, which is synonymous with “I couldn’t give a damn”.

This brings us to another seemingly reasonable objection. How can the same phrase mean its own opposite? Well, if enough people use it as though it can, then it can. We make the rules; they don’t spring from some utopian realm of transcendent consistency. Besides, English has lots of words that mean their own opposite or have somehow contradictory senses. They’re called contronyms, auto-antonyms, and Janus words, among other names; there’s a list of them here.

If your inner pedant baulks at “I could care less”, or even if you’re happy enough with “I couldn’t care less” (as I am) and see no good reason to switch, well, you can carry on using the more ostensibly logical version. But you have no business insisting that the illogical form is “wrong” and that everyone should stop using it. Indeed, you could probably care less about it. Try that.

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Comments (31)
  • I love “selective hyperliteralism.” It sums up the situation perfectly. I’d rather see “I couldn’t care less” in print for some peevish reason, but I won’t correct for it in a manuscript or get all twisted up about reading “I could care less” instead.

    Posted by Erin Brenner on 6th August, 2013
  • Stan:
    I cleave to the negative form, but those who prefer to use it cleft of its negation, are free to do so.

    Posted by marc leavitt on 7th August, 2013
  • The first place I heard this was from the West Wing character Toby Ziegler, played by Richard Schiff. Toby is New York Jewish and I’m wondering if this form of the phrase possibly has a Yiddish origin, like so many US colloquialisms. I see that Michael Quinion of World Wide Words has had the same thought – http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ico1.htm – though he can’t find any evidence for it.

    Posted by Liz on 8th August, 2013
  • This reminds me of the debate about “all mouth and no trousers” vs. the (seemingly illogical) “all mouth and trousers”: http://www.macmillandictionaryblog.com/all-hat-and-no-cattle (and see Comments there).

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 8th August, 2013
  • …and the similarly illogical “cheap at half the price”, which is almost twice as frequent as “cheap at twice the price” in ukWaC. Even as I was writing that, I got confused about which way round it should be. Some of the corpus lines discuss this – one asks whether the first, or the second, is a jokey way of saying ‘expensive’. – or maybe both are. Oh well, idioms just aren’t logical.

    Posted by Gill on 8th August, 2013
  • One of my favorites is: I can’t win for losing.

    Posted by Marc Leavitt on 10th August, 2013
  • Erin: Greene’s “selective hyperliteralism” is a very well-coined phrase, applicable to many peevish complaints about idioms and illogic in language. Like you, I see no reason to get het up about “could care less”.

    Marc: Exactly: we’re free to use whichever form we prefer.

    Liz: Thanks for the link. Quinion’s discussion (which I hadn’t read) is very interesting, especially the speculation on its origin and the vaguely similar expressions found in colloquial AmE speech.

    Michael: It’s interesting how expressions like this mutate into forms that directly contradict their original versions. “All mouth and no trousers” echoes the challenge: You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

    Gill: That’s another good example. Google’s Ngram Viewer shows the relative use of “cheap at half the price” and “cheap at twice the price” changing a lot over the last century, with the “twice” form currently pulling ahead. Both seem to attract confusion and dispute over their intended meanings.

    Posted by Stan on 11th August, 2013
  • I really don’t understand the “it’s not logical” argument (rather, I do understand it but its premise is in itself not logical). As I have written elsewhere, it might be that I know damn nothing about linguistics but I prefer to think I know damn all…

    Posted by Jeremy Wheeler on 12th August, 2013
  • Jeremy: Yes, the “it’s not logical” argument rests on a fallacious idea of language and is doomed to inconsistency: where do, or can, the expectations of logic end?

    Posted by Stan on 12th August, 2013
  • For anyone interested in the ‘contronym’ (also ‘contranym”) concept, there’s a bit more from me here in this piece on contemporary use of ‘sick’

    http://www.macmillandictionary.com/buzzword/entries/sick.html :

    Posted by Kerry on 12th August, 2013
  • Some of my thoughts on “could/couldn’t care less” are found in the comments on Barrie England’s blog post, linked to in the second paragraph. So what follows is supplementary to that.

    The first time I heard “couldn’t care less” was in a conversation with my grandfather, who at the time was talking about abusive parents who “couldn’t care less” about their children. You know, one of those conversations about how lucky you are to have parents who care for you, whatever their faults.

    If I were writing a style guide, I’d advise Americans to avoid using “could care less” in publications intended for a global audience.

    I vehemently disagree with Michael’s view that “all mouth and trousers” is less logical — either seemingly or otherwise — than the version with “trousers” negated. See the four-year-old discussion in the comments here (which contains a teachable misunderstanding that you will need to read through).

    Posted by Adrian Morgan on 14th August, 2013
  • I love the line, “there is no can and there are no worms”. I imagine the no-spoon kid saying it to Neo in The Matrix: Linguistics.

    Posted by Oisín on 14th August, 2013
  • Adrian: I would advise the same. Despite having nothing against the expression, it’s not appropriate for all contexts.

    Oisín: It’s an ontological can of worms. The Matrix: Linguistics – now that would make an interesting sequel… or maybe not.

    Posted by Stan on 14th August, 2013
  • It has always seemed to me that there is logic to be found behind any expression, if you look far enough for it. In this specific case, I believe the stress is always on the ‘I’, not on ‘could’ or anything else. This being so (or perhaps I should say ‘If this is so’, or even ‘If this be so’…), I have always explained the expression ‘I could care less’ as a contracted form of ‘As if I could care less’ (and of course we have the expression ‘as if I care’). That explains the stress on ‘I’, and the meaning of the entire expression.

    Posted by Harry Lake on 15th August, 2013
  • I, for one, have never heard the stress on the “I” (or the “could”), always on the “care” or the “care less.” But, like Harry Lake, I think of it as a contraction (but for the more colloquial than “as if”): “Like I could care less.” The sarcastic expression “Like I care” is common in America as is the more recent “AS IF!”

    Posted by Kevin Sullivan on 15th August, 2013
  • Harry: An interesting way of looking at the expression, but I would hesitate to interpret it that way. For one thing, I don’t think the “I” is typically stressed, though as a non-USer I’m open to correction on that. Sometimes an idiom takes a bit of poking to reveal its logic, but sometimes logic (that is, formal logic) is not an efficient tool with which to make sense of it.

    Kevin: That’s another spin on it I hadn’t considered. I’m not sure whether that’s just how you make sense of it, or if you think it underlies many people’s use of it. I would be unconvinced of the latter: the fact that it is (or at least appears to be) a Negative Polarity Item makes sarcasm-based justifications unnecessary. By the way, Irish English has an expression mar dhea (anglicised in various ways) that can mean something similar to “As if!”

    Posted by Stan on 16th August, 2013
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  • I’m sorry, but ‘I could care less’ really grates on me because it is diametrically opposed to what it is supposed to mean, which seems to be a poor use of language in any context.

    Posted by Helen Birkbeck on 2nd October, 2013
  • Helen: It grates on many people, especially outside the US. But as I’ve shown, language is not immune to apparent contradictions. If usage were logical, “Let’s see if we can’t win it this time” would mean the opposite of “Let’s see if we can win it this time”, yet in context they mean the same thing – likewise “I could/couldn’t give a damn.” Context trumps logic when it comes to language. Whether people get annoyed by this is up to them; I just find the paradoxes interesting.

    Posted by Stan on 2nd October, 2013
  • I’m sorry, Stan, but you’re analysis of this issue is missing the point by a mile. One of your arguments is that idiom doesn’t necessarily have to follow rules of logic. That may be true, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t correct and incorrect forms of idiom. The correct phrase already exists, and is in frequent use by those who understand it. It is: “I couldn’t care less.”

    The reason that “I could care less” is also in use, is simply because some people overheard it, and copied it – incorrectly. So, aside from it being illogical, it’s simply a careless misuse of an existing, and by coincidence perfectly logical, form of the phrase. And even if you might still understand the intention and meaning, that doesn’t make the incorrect use suddenly correct. And there is still virtue in retaining the correct use of the English language, even if it is only cosmetic (which isn’t the case here, incidentally).

    So honestly, I could care less. Because I do care.

    Posted by Kryz on 18th March, 2014
  • Kryz, in that case we’ll agree to disagree. I’m not saying the idiom is “suddenly correct” — in fact, I didn’t mention correctness — I’m saying it’s legitimate for the people who use it. Correctness in language use is not absolute. Couldn’t care less is standard and widely accepted; could care less (with the same meaning) is nonstandard and less widely accepted, but that doesn’t make it universally invalid.
    You’re entitled to avoid using the nonstandard idiom (I do), and to dislike it, but a zero-tolerance approach to such usages is not compatible with much informal communication.
    There is virtue in retaining correct usages, in formal contexts anyway, but the history of the language shows how often mistakes become the norm. So I wouldn’t get too worked up over it.

    Posted by Stan on 19th March, 2014
  • I couldn’t agree with Stan more. We aim to describe language, rather than to prescribe or proscribe. Language is constantly changing in a changing world, and there is no such thing as ‘correctness’ in any absolute sense. But we *can* talk about appropriate language. For example, school-children are usually asked to write in ‘Standard English’, which is simply the variety that is currently dominant – it is not intrinsically superior, and it is changing over time like all varieties. The same children may be speaking quite differently at home or in everyday transactions. The job of a teacher is to help kids understand the notion of appropriacy, not to lay down immutable laws of right and wrong.

    Misplaced notions of correctness are at the root of the malaise and confusion about grammar teaching in schools. The self-styled ‘grammarians’ responsible for this confusion would prefer, it seems, to turn English into a dead language, like the Latin they love. I’d suggest you read Michael’s post “Because I say so”, from May 2013, and other posts on the topic at around this time. And Michael Rosen’s arguments in the Guardian, especially in April and May 2013.

    And as Stan says, logic is not something that is required of idioms, semi-fixed chunks, semantic sequences, or collocations in general. Why does ‘break up’ mean almost the same as ‘break down’? Why is the distinction between ‘It’s down to you’ and ‘it’s up to you’ disappearing? Why has ‘flammable’ come to mean the same as ‘inflammable’? Why is ‘sipid’ not the opposite of ‘insipid’? There are no answers to these and hundreds of other questions, though looking at words and phrases over time may provide partial explanations.

    Posted by Gill on 19th March, 2014
  • I’d like to offer my take on the subject – as a non-native speaker who lives in a bicultural and bilingual household (US/DE) and who has an affinity for languages (naturally, I work in a language profession, too).

    I do, somewhat, object to Kryz’s comment based on the fact that, as Stan explained in the “have your cake and eat it, too” article, proverbs – as well as spelling, grammar, etc. – may have already changed over the past centuries and there is no reason to now proclaim it was time to retain “the correct use of the English language.” Just consider the former hyphenation of the two bi- words I used in the paragraph above.

    That does not mean I wouldn’t care for language rules – I am actually quite meticulous and I do understand Kryz’s reasons for the remarks. But the aforementioned is a “problem” of almost all languages (except “dead” ones). Let us hope that British and American readers of dictionary entries never follow some Germans – me included – in neglecting their former language authorities (in this case, the Duden).

    That said, it may be interesting to note, Stan, that I do only use the “I could care less” variant (well, US/DE household), also because it seems more logical to me. Maybe not more logical, simply more intuitive. I just don’t like using double negatives, not even in German – only if I really want to be sarcastic. Yes, there are these double negatives in German, they just may be worded differently (as in the German equivalent of “That couldn’t be more uninteresting.”, or other un- words).

    I do stress the proverb on the last word “less”, but this emphasis is exactly why I use it without a double negative. In my perspective, I emphasize the statement and would usually take a modifier, such as “even” – “even more” / “even further”, etc. Which means: My actual sentence would be “I could care even less about what you’re doing.” I am capable, so to speak, of devoting an even tinier fraction of my attention to you if you provoke me further. As the words typically end up in conversation only, I drop the “even” in favor of emphasizing the “less”. Maybe there is a glimmer of hope that someone else feels the same way.

    Thank you for your time – and, I enjoy reading your articles.

    Posted by Bjoern on 13th April, 2014
  • Thanks for your considered thoughts on this, Bjoern, and for explaining how and why you use the non-standard version of the phrase. I think many of the objections to it, and to other problematic usages, stem from misapplication of logic (language is well stocked with contradictions, and that’s OK) or from misconceptions of correctness. Standard English calls for strict observation of certain formal norms and rules, but other varieties of English have their own conventions, which may have less prestige but are perfectly legitimate in their own domains.

    Posted by Stan on 15th April, 2014
  • “I couldn’t care less” contradicts itself, because by taking the time and energy to use the phrase in the first place, you are implying that you do care a little bit, by the fact that you are willing to respond to the subject at all. Hence, “I could care less” is the superior phrase in every respect.

    Posted by Beaverbrook on 20th July, 2014
  • Beaverbrook: Good point! And by that logic meh is better again and non-verbal responses (and non-responses) even more apt.

    Posted by Stan on 21st July, 2014
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  • I disagree with the argument that “I could care less” is valid simply because people use it. It is used because people are ignorant of the proper idiom. For years, English teachers have taught that using “ain’t” is incorrect, despite the number of people that use it. Would you now claim that it is fine to use? I have seen people use “for all intensive purposes” instead of “for all intents and purposes” because they misheard it and didn’t think about it. Should that now be a correct form as well? You can’t simply start claiming that mistakes are not mistakes because “languages change”. If you truly believe that, then lets just get rid of English teachers altogether, because apparently, there are no real rules that need to be applied… just let people make up their own.

    Posted by Erik Zidowecki on 24th July, 2014
  • Erik: Could care less is not valid in formal standard English, except when used ironically or jocularly, but it is valid in certain informal and colloquial varieties where people use it as the usual idiom. The same goes for ain’t. There’s no cause for alarm.

    Posted by Stan on 24th July, 2014
  • […] Carey has a whole page about this particular idiom in the Macmillan Dictionary blog in which he concludes that ‘you have no business insisting that the illogical form is […]

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