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Could[n't] Care Less

Could[n't] Care Less

By Miss Marm

It's 101 degrees in New York today. Perhaps a plunge into the icy waters of grammar will cool us down! Here's a great email from sligers118:

This isn't exactly having my grammar corrected in an essay, but I just had a small question I was wondering if you'd maybe like to clarify for me. I'm not sure it even counts as grammar but... it's been niggling at me for a while, and I'd love a definitive answer.

So, I'm English and I'm not usually bothered by differences between English and American colloquialisms, but I've seen this in quite a few books and movies and it just doesn't seem to make sense. I'm talking about the distinction between "couldn't care less" and "could care less." To me, it seems like this:

Teacher: Fred, you've failed your maths test.
Fred: I couldn't care less.

Clearly, there is nothing that bothers Fred as little as failing this test—it is at the bottom of his list of important things.

Teacher: Fred, you've failed your science test.
Fred: I could care less.

To me, this implies that failing the test bothers Fred a little bit—he is able to care less about it (and possibly should). Failing the test comes somewhere underneath going out that afternoon, but somewhere above getting eaten by monkeys, in the scheme of things which are important.

But apparently, they both mean the same thing. Am I right? If I'm wrong then why does it work? Was that entirely clear?

Yes, that was entirely clear, and no, it's not okay to say "could care less"—unless you mean that you do care that you bombed your algebra final. As modern-day deity Bryan Garner says, "Although some apologists argue that could care less" is meant to be sarcastic and not to be taken literally, a more plausible explanation is that the -n't of couldn't has been garbled in sloppy speech and sloppy writing."

There you have it. People who insist on saying "I could care less" are probably confused and definitely wrong.

Do you say "could care less"? 'Fess up! (Confession: I do sometimes, when I'm feeling sloppy.)

Topics: grammar, vs., the rules, garner's modern american usage, american english

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