Grammar for the People: you couldn’t care less

Grammar for the People2

We are an indecisive society. With so many options for where to eat, work, live, and play, the ability to choose promptly and contentedly is a dying skill. We have become so indecisive that when expressing our dislike for or disinclination to choose something, we glibly throw out the phrase “I don’t care.” We use “I don’t care” to express our lack of opinion. However, if you truly “don’t care,” that is, in fact, an opinion and merely reflects an inability to decide.

When we want to make our indifference and indecision sound more dramatic, we go so far as to say we “couldn’t care less.” Now, you might be quirking an eyebrow and saying “I thought it was ‘could care less.’?” Well, that’s what modern people have gone and made it. The original phrase is “couldn’t care less.”

One could argue that you can use the phrase in both ways. When you’re that adamantly indecisive or indifferent, does it matter if you could or couldn’t care less? Well, yes it does matter. “Could care” and “couldn’t care” mean the opposite of each other.

If you are going to use the incorrect phrase “could care less,” think about what it means for the level of your caring. Maybe you think it sounds more sophisticated or less negative, but all you are saying is that you haven’t reached the bottom of your care threshold. You are trying to claim total carelessness while really saying that there is still some caring left in you. That seems like a silly thing to say.

When you intend to express your total lack of care about someone or something, use “couldn’t care less.” It means that of the caring you can do about a particular thing, you cannot care any less about it. You have reached the lowest level of your caring. There is no more care to give. It can also be used to show that you never cared for the issue to begin with and, truthfully, you “don’t care.”

So how did this mix-up happen?

Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl (creator and founder of Quick and Dirty Tips), did some digging and found that a Harvard language professor thinks the phrase “could care less” came about to convey irony or sarcasm. Grammar Girl continues that linguists have determined the origin of “could care less” is lazy and sloppy language. People have plainly dropped the final “n’t” sound.

Regardless of the reason for the mix-up and which phrase you insist on using, remember that one makes sense while the other doesn’t.

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