The Negative Canon: Could I Care Less, Or Couldn’t I?

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.

I couldn’t care less is a fairly common expression in British English, and no doubt in other varieties of the language, to indicate that the speaker’s interest in what is being said or done is less than enthusiastic: the speaker’s concern is at its lowest possible level. A variant seems to have sprung up, mainly, it seems, in the United States, in which the, apparently young, speaker seems to be saying the opposite of what is intended. I could care less, on the face of it, looks as if the speaker is saying that their engagement with a particular topic of conversation could actually be lower, so perhaps it is really quite high.

Those who like to find fault with pretty much everything anybody else says and writes are quick to make this point. I do not recall anyone actually saying I could care less, and its use may not be widespread in the UK, so it might be wise to allow someone with a far more authoritative voice to explain what is going on. Steven Pinker writes about it in Chapter 12 ‘The Language Mavens’ in his book ‘The Language Instinct’. (The extracts available here are all worth reading.) Here’s what he says about I could care less:

A tin ear for stress and melody, and an obliviousness to  the  principles  of discourse  and  rhetoric,  are  important  tools  of the trade for the language maven. Consider an alleged atrocity committed by today’s youth: the expression ‘I could care less’. The teenagers are trying to express disdain, the adults note, in which case they should be saying ‘I couldn’t care less’. If they could care less than they do, that means that they really do care, the opposite of what they are trying to say. But if these dudes would stop ragging on teenagers and scope out the construction, they would see that their argument is bogus.  Listen to how the two versions are pronounced . . . The melodies and stresses are completely different, and for a good reason. The second version is not illogical, it’s sarcastic. The point of sarcasm is that by making an assertion that is manifestly false or accompanied by ostentatiously mannered intonation, one deliberately implies its opposite. A good paraphrase is, ‘Oh yeah, as if there were something in the world that I care less about.’

So into the Negative Canon it goes.

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21 Comments

Filed under The Negative Canon

21 responses to “The Negative Canon: Could I Care Less, Or Couldn’t I?

  1. Those mavens! I shouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t take any notice of this…

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    • They never do. The problem with the Facebook warriors who try to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong in English is that they know so little about it. They know enough to tell us that there’s a difference between ‘their’ and ‘they’re’, but not enough to see that the glory of English lies not its uniformity, but in its diversity.

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  2. dw

    FWIW, I think that Pinker is completely wrong here. I typically hear “I could care less” uttered with near-identical intonation to “I couldn’t care less”. The source of the innovation seems far more likely to be phonological erosion of the unstressed “‘nt” syllable, combined with the semantic opacity of the phrase.

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    • I think I’ve seen an objection to Pinker’s explanation before. Perhaps things are different in Massachusetts.

      As I said, I don’t recall ever hearing it myself, so I can’t comment with any authority on the intonation. Are there any other instances where the negative contraction is lost with similar effect? Whatever the explanation, the amount of ire it seems to generate is out of all proportion to the cause.

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      • Maybe it’s THIS you’ve seen: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001182.html

        I’ve never heard it either … when you say “mainly” in the US I think you are being conservative … “almost exclusively” is probably nearer the mark.

        Having said that, “couldn’t care less” seemed very strange to me the first time I encountered it as a child. It is not indefensible, I think, to re-analyse “I could care less” to mean, “if there were a ‘caring least’ competition, I could win”.

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        • No, it wasn’t there, but thanks for the link anyway. It would be good if Steven Pinker could be given the chance to answer the charge against him on the prosody point.

          I suspect you’re right to say ‘almost exclusively’, but I tend to be cautious in these matters.

          However they’re analysed, there’s no doubt about the intention behind either expression. It’s the way in which people go on about ‘I could care less’ that earns it its place in the Negative Canon.

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    • nyclouise

      I agree with DW. I think Pinker is completely wrong. I live in the States, where I hear that expression “I could care less” all the time. And it is said with exactly the same intonation as the original expression, but laziness shaves the “nt” off the end of “could”. It’s nothing to do with semantics or irony. And I think calling so-called language mavens “tin-eared”, at least in this case, is like the pot calling the kettle black.

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      • If that is so, wouldn’t there be other cases where ‘couldn’t’ occurs as ‘could’. And, if there are, why don’t we hear about them?

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        • ‘Could give a damn’
          The phrases are basically the same. Sometimes we emphasize ‘give’ and ‘care’, other times ‘damn’ and ‘less’, occasionally both. But the emphasis is never on ‘couldn’t/could’

          When I heard it in school it was often thrown out to dismiss things. Like: “Pen or pencil? I could care less” It’s said quickly and without emphasis to evoke disinterest. Trying to fit ‘couldn’t in there would ruin the rhythm.

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    • BFD

      I’m with you DW. I believe “I could care less” is used by people who want to sound disinterested but never quite paid attention to the phrase in the first place. Consider those who suggest you “nip it in the butt”. This is not illogical at all but doesn’t have quite the same meaning as “nip it in the bud”.

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  3. Among TRAP=BATH speakers (who of course are mostly in North America, but not exclusively), the difference between can and can’t is very subtle and sometimes gets miscommunicated, especially under sentential stress. But I don’t know that this ever rises above the level of a performance error.

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    • And no one complains about that. In the case of ‘I could care less’ there can be no ambiguity over what is intended, any more than there can with the multiple negation in ‘I don’t know nuffink’.

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  4. Jason Cullen

    I think it was Pinker’s book that really started the Great Revolt Against the Mavens. Even if you’re not a fan of cognitive science or generative linguistics, it’s a wonderful read. (His defense of the language of Barbara Streisand against Safire’s naive criticism is hilarious!)

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  5. A bit late to the party here, but having been an American teen myself, I can say that I’ve heard “I could care less” many times and every time the person meant “couldn’t” but didn’t know any better. Having also come across the nip butt/nip bud construction, I chalk it up to the increasingly lazy language habits of many Americans. This is, after all, a nation where people frequently say (and write!) “for all intensive purposes.” They just ain’t never learned better and ain’t nobody tole them right.

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    • Thank you. It’s good to have a first-hand account.

      I’m always dubious about lazy language habits and the like. People have been complaining about the deterioration of English for centuries. ‘The Nation’ published a report entitled ‘The Growing Illiteracy of American Boys’ in 1892.

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  6. Pingback: I am right, you are wrong. Always. | spottedISSUES Blog

  7. Stan Carey has now posted on this on the Macmillan Dictionary blog where he, too, expresses doubt about Pinker’s sarcasm theory.

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