“Could care less” or “couldn’t care less”

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” are Rhett Butler’s famous last words to Scarlett O’Hara. Could you imagine a modern remake of Gone with the Wind in which Rhett would rather say “Frankly my dear, I could care less”? (“God, no!”, you say?)

Although the phrase I COULD care less is often criticized by the language guardians, editors and usage guide writers, you might be surprised to find out that it has been around for almost as long as the “original” expression it is often “mistaken” for: I COULDN’T care less. The “corrupted” I COULD care less, started being used already in the 1950s, as can be observed from the Corpus of Historical American English,  although, at that time, it was usually preceded by negative personal pronouns: “No one COULD CARE LESS what a camel was like than young ladies at tea”.  By the 1960s, the explicit negation was dropped altogether and nowadays sentences such as: “I COULD CARE LESS what you feel or think about me” are part of accepted usage. Except for looking at language data from different corpora to tell us about when this particular usage appeared, a sure sign of it gaining ground are the complaints about it in letters to the editor. Sure enough, the first letter on the topic of COULD care less was published in the Lawrence Daily Journal-World on October 20, 1960.

What is so controversial about this expression? Its critics claim that it is not logical and that it is even absurd. If you use the expression COULDN’T care less, you are stating that you do not care at all, therefore, caring less would be impossible. Its corruption COULD care less implies that the speaker does care, which implies the opposite of what she is trying to say. William Safire goes a step further in his “I Stand Corrected” stating that the expression COULD care less has become so widespread that a reversal has occurred in which  using “[the proper form] would be regarded as the sort of thing a visiting Martian might say”.

I could care less

Regardless of such line of criticism, linguists offer several good explanations for why such a change occurred and why the expression is not illogical as it may seem to some. In her book Talking Voices, Deborah Tannen explains that COULD care less is not the only example of its kind. Negations in phrases are occasionally dropped in speech, without affecting the hearer’s understanding of the implied meaning. Other examples of this kind are:

“I won’t  pay more than I can help” instead of “I won’t pay more than I cannot help” (more than I must)
“until every stone is unturned” instead of “until there is no stone left unturned”

Another argument has been put forward by Deborah Tannen and other linguistis, such as Rebecca S. Wheeler (graph below), who claim that the entire formula is altered by dropping the negation and that it signals sarcasm.

could care graph

By shifting the emphasis in the sentence, the speaker reveals sarcasm, as in saying “Oh yeah, as if there were something in the world I care less about”. Steven Pinker advocates the same position in this article.

What are your thoughts on the usage of COULD care less? Does its acceptability vary depending on the context?

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