Over 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.Email this Post