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Prose Parade
Grammar and writing basics

Could/Couldn’t Care Less

I know a lot of people think these two terms are interchangeable, but they’re not. One means you don’t care; the other means you have more depths of caring to plumb.

If you say, “I could care less,” I’m tempted to ask you how much less you could care. No, really, tell me just how much less you could care. I’m vicious if I need to be. This is one phrase that sends me up the wall, around the ceiling, down the other wall and back to the floor.

I think the problem arises because “couldn’t care less” is an odd construction and tries to strike a tone of sarcasm or ennui or cover-up of the real feeling, a dramatic interpretation anyway. Whatever the reason, the construction is odd and confusing. I think if you’re writing it, maybe it’s better not to because the tone needs a real live voice to convey its meaning. It’s better to write, “I don’t care.”

Unless you’re writing fiction, then you can have your character say anything you or he/she pleases. It’s fiction; you can get away with a lot of bad grammar, bad syntax and bad colloquial expressions. Characters are defined in ways like these.

In the end, however, for all of you who say “could care less.” Cut it out. It’s “couldn’t care less.” Period. It’s not a matter of opinion (as someone once told me), they don’t mean the same thing (as many people have told me), and even though I know what you mean (as most people have told me), I don’t care. Use the right expression.

BTW, I rarely correct people’s grammar or anything about what they say in conversation because by and large it’s rude and interrupts the flow of the conversation, but I make an exception for this one.


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June 21, 2009 um 1:47 pm
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  1. Nick Hobson

    I never use “could care less”, but it is listed in the OED, which gives sense 4 of “care” as:

    4. In negative and conditional construction: a. not to care passes from the notion of ‘not to trouble oneself’, to those of ‘not to mind, not to regard or pay any deference or attention, to pay no respect, be indifferent’.

    and then among the various subtypes listed (e.g. care a button or a fig) comes eventually to the specific phrase in question,

    (c) Colloq. phr. (I, etc.) couldn’t care less: (I am, etc.) completely uninterested, utterly indifferent; freq. as phr. used attrib. Hence couldn’t-care-less-ness.

    for which the earliest citation is from 1946, and then gives an explicit listing to the unnegated form:

    (d) U.S. colloq. phr. (I, etc.) could care less = sense (c) above, with omission of negative.

    1966 Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1 Nov. 21/2 My husband is a lethargic, indecisive guy who drifts along from day to day. If a bill doesn’t get paid he could care less.
    1973 Washington Post 5 Jan. B1/1 A few crusty-souled Republican senators who could care less about symbolic rewards.
    1978 J. CARROLL Mortal Friends III. iii. 281 ‘I hate sneaking past your servants in the morning.’ ‘They know, anyway. They could care less. Thornton mistreats them horribly.’


    So the OED specifically states that “could care less” has the same meaning as “couldn’t care less”.

    With the advent of digital newspaper databases, “could care less” has now been dated back to 1955; see

    I’ve seen various accounts of how the phrase arose and how it could indeed mean the same as its apparent negation, “couldn’t care less”. One theory is that “I could care less” is short for “I could care less, but I’d have to try”, and occasionally I’ve heard it said with exactly the right intonation to suggest that. See http://www.yaelf.com/aueFAQ/mifcouldcareless.shtml Another is John Lawlor’s idea that “could care less” is an example of a Negative Polarity Item. See http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jlawler/aue/giveadamn.html Steven Pinker argues that the usage is sarcastic: http://camba.ucsd.edu/files/misc/ll/grammar_puss.html ; others disagree:

    I think “could care less” and “couldn’t care less” are both grammatically correct, but colloquial idioms. Best avoided in formal writing!

    #1 Comment vom 22. June 2009 um 12:45 pm

  2. admin

    Well, so much to reply to. First, you certainly delve into a subject, don’t you. Remember, my site is about basics (and those sites are not basic although I enjoyed them, but I’m a grammar geek), and for a non-writer or non-English speaker the prescriptive rules are the way to go.

    Next, those sites are all over the place explaining their positions–and going some distance to do so–and go into the subject in way too much depth. So, let’s keep things as simple as possible.

    A few thoughts:

    The OED doesn’t pass judgment about syntactical correctness; it gives definition and citations.

    I think both constructions are grammatical; they just mean different things.

    Both can be uttered sarcastically or not.

    English isn’t French, so the ne…pas example is bogus.

    Yes, the problem probably does have to do with the negativity.

    There are prescriptive rules for a reason: ease of communication when writing. Spoken communication is more forgiving of grammatical and language errors because it’s accompanied by vocal and facial expressions and human kindness (not necessarily mine–at least in my head).

    And still, “could care less” drives me crazy.

    Finally, I never, ever saw a prescriptive rule that forbade ending a sentence with a preposition. Some language dunderhead in our dim past forced this nonexistent rule on language arts teachers, and we’ve carried it forward. (Well, not me.)

    And another finally, sometimes it’s all right to split an infinitive, but sometimes the sentence reads better when it isn’t split. One does have to develop a prosodic ear. I would certainly hope that all people who are copy editors, etc. have that ear or learn it. Otherwise, you’re all in for a heap more of my kvetching.

    #2 Comment vom 25. June 2009 um 9:32 am

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