“Could Care Less” versus “Couldn’t Care Less”

By Maeve Maddox

My article about the loss of Thou received some comments on the use of “could care less” instead of “couldn’t care less.”

My choice to write “Shakespeare could care less” was a deliberate one. I felt that “could care less” was more euphonious than “couldn’t care less” and sounded a bit “cheekier.” I thought that by now either form of the idiom was acceptable.

How wrong can a writer be?!

So wrong that a Google search of the phrase “could care less” garners 1,930,000 hits. Some of the discussions are quite impassioned. Although the newer form of the expression meaning “not to care at all” has been widely-used for some time, many people still regard it as an uneducated error.

Paul Brians, English professor at Washington State University, points out in an interview with Avi Arditti the difficulty of dealing with idioms that are in the process of changing:

the problem is that as [a new idiom] evolves, you get caught as a user between people who are going with the new pattern and those who know the old pattern and are comfortable with it.

Cautions Brians,

some people will disapprove or think less of you if you say it [the new] way.

He concludes that speakers and writers may choose to use the newer pattern, but that they do so at a certain risk because people who are bothered by the new pattern may be in a position to hire them, or grade their papers, or reject them as social equals.

The Oxford dictionary already recognizes “could care less” as an American colloquialism. Many people, however, regard it as incorrect since it makes no logical sense (if you “could care less” it means that you care at least a bit).

What do you think about it? Have your say in our Poll! (RSS readers will need to visit the site to take the poll).

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177 Responses to ““Could Care Less” versus “Couldn’t Care Less””

  • Hm

    “I could care less”
    – a: can you clean my room?
    – b: um..no
    – a: please?
    – b: fine.
    – a: can you also clean the bathroom? I am really tired.
    – b: dude, i could care less. (B can care less by not cleaning at all but he is doing a a favor because he cares a little. A is asking too much favor and b doesn’t want to do anything more than cleaning the room if not at all.)

    “I couldn’t care less”
    – a: i stole your money
    – b: what the heck?
    – a: it was because i was hungry
    – b: I couldn’t care less, give me back my money! ( B doesn’t care at all that A is hungry or/and about the fact that that is why A stole the money.)

    The “saying” for which people mean they don’t care at all, would be “I couldn’t care less”.

    “I could care less” basically means that the person cares somewhat but does not want to care more than he/she already does hence could care less but not more.

    They have different meanings (don’t care at all vs don’t want to care more) but I feel like they could be used in similar context. They both mean they don’t care, but there is the nuance difference in the amount in which they care.

    In my opinion LOL

  • Laurence Almand

    If you “could care less” that means you do care somewhat. If you “could NOT care less” it means you don’t care in the least.

  • Anto

    Let’s cut to the chase. The phrase ‘I could care less’ is directly opposite to what people that use it actually mean. It’s not ironic or sarcastic, it’s just wrong.

    If you know it’s wrong and use it anyway, whatever. Just don’t try and justify it!

  • KT

    I can corroborate what john Ireland said above .

    An (early 80s?) article which appeared the Milwaukee Journal – I believe it was in the “Words, Wit, and Wisdom” column of the ‘Green Sheet’ but don’t quote me on that – pointed out that the origin of “I could care less” is that it is a shortened form of “It’s possible I could care less, but I doubt it.” (and variations thereof).

    Incidentally, when I used the phrase once in conversation and an aquaintance of mine told me I was incorrect, I explained the above, but he accused me of not being able to admit when I was wrong. Sigh.

  • Michael

    It’s always been a pet hate of mine and I never understood it. Reading these arguments in favour of ‘I could care less’ make as much sense as the saying itself, especially the sarcasm argument which, frankly, is a really poor excuse.

    The sarcastic response to someone discussing something you have no interest in would be ‘I care LOADS’ preferably with a massive emphasis on the word loads. That’s clearly sarcastic which is something absolutely vital to sarcasm, if you don’t emphasis and make a big deal of it, it can easily be lost. ‘I could care less’ is (at absolute best) the most thinly disguised use of sarcasm I have ever heard of.

    If I talk to someone and they say ‘I could care less’ it simply fails to move me in any way. Do they mean they care a great deal and I should continue? Perhaps they care but they’re tired of discussing this subject? Either way I wouldn’t know how to respond to this statement because it means nothing and adds absolutely nothing of any worth to the conversation when taken at face value. This has happened and I didn’t know how to react at all but one thing I was certain of at the time was that this person definitely cared about this subject to some degree, I just had to try and figure out what that was!

  • Bruce Birch

    The point John Ireland tried to make on 10.8.2007 is the relevant one here. Language changes, quite quickly sometimes. And two basic processes in language change are deletion and lenition. Frequently occurring words and phrases become shorter and ‘softer’ over time, as is the case with “going to” becoming “gunna” in many dialects of English, and so on.

    The “I could care less” variant, along with its close cousins of the “i could give a *” group, are most likely shortened forms of expressions which originally proposed hypothetical contexts in which the speaker DID in fact “care” or “give a *”.

    These expressions begin with “As if” or “Like” as in “As if I could care” or “Like I give a *”. Over time the other bits dropped off, and we were left with the core, which, in terms of its propositional content, now expresses pretty much the opposite of what the original expression intended.

    But this is normal, not weird. There are many examples in any language of the same thing.

  • Feno

    You know, there’s an “internet law” that alleges that every message trying to correct somebody else’s writing mistakes will inevitably contain at least one mistake of its own. Try if you find one, the law is in general very reliable.

    As for “could not”/”could” care less… i prefer the wording could care less, as i always expect to find myself at fault if I declare that i could not care less. There’s always something i will be even less emphatic about than the last subject it did not want to be bothered with.
    Now saying “i could care less” always meant to me that it still might be possible to literally care less, but i wouldn’t reckon on it in any case, as it would be bothersome and take effort to really care less. So it has already surmounted the most energy, time, money etc. I am willing to invest in said subject.
    Or in other words I dislike couldn’t as it is literal and like could as it is figurative in my eyes.

  • Marv

    I realize I am responding to something that was posted over two years ago, however one of my biggest pet peeves (even bigger than the topic of this debate) is seeing someone correct another’s grammar while evidently having little grasp on proper grammar his/herself.

    On 6/8/10, mikeo wrote: “I somewhat envy the people whom grammatical errors have no effect on as long as they understand the intent.”

    Mikeo, this should be written as such: “I somewhat envy the people on whom grammatical errors have no effect as long as they understand the intent.”

    It is especially easy to point this out considering the very nature of your post.

  • Laquila

    What’s the point debating all this?

    Americans KNOW that when they say ‘I could care less’ they are conveying the same sentinment as the rest of the English speaking world when they say ‘I couldn’t care less’. Why bother trying to rationalise the difference?

    It’s simply a case of lazy Americans dropping the syllable after ‘could’. Just like they do with the word aluminium.

  • Willy Waver

    @Iain
    I’ve always felt that “I could care less” was originally used in speech, in an ironic sense, to mean its opposite. The problem with using it in writing is that the irony does not get across, and it ends up saying the opposite of what it is intended to say. It’s not a question of whether it’s “correct” or not.

  • Spot

    I read through all of your comments………

    This subject can be debated forever with both sides producing valid arguments. Therefore…….

    After careful review……I have decided that I (have the capacity to) “could” care less about this subject. Actually, I am going to start caring less right now!

    LOL….

  • Iain

    @ CN on April 19, 2012 3:53 am

    But you did not address the point that NO native North American misunderstands it when spoken. It is a very commonly used phrase that everyone understands. By mere recognition of those facts it simply cannot be wrong. This is not a justification but a recognition of an undeniable reality. I understand not everyone is the early adopter type, but at some point this kind of prescriptive language approach has to face up to overwhelming “facts on the ground,” n’est-ce pas?

    You can say it is incorrect in British, Australian or wherever’s English, but in NA that just isn’t going to receive too many salutes when you run it up the flag pole. You are going against the tide of history on this one.

  • CN

    All the justifications for using “I could care less” are ridiculous. Some argue that it’s meant to be sarcastic. It still doesn’t make sense. If you were being sarcastic surely you would say, for example, “I really care what you think”. Then there are those that say we need to understand the origins of “I could care less” for it to make sense.  Some claim it originated as a question, some that it was preceded by “As if”, others that there was more to it, eg “I could care less but I’d have to try really hard”. Regardless, you can’t just leave off question marks or words that define the meaning or tone of the phrase and claim it means the same thing. That’s just stupid and wrong. Lastly, there are those that argue that “I could care less” means “I care a little but I might care less if you continue to talk about this”. Sounds like garbage to me. Why not say, “I care very little” or “I don’t much care” or “I find this boring”? In any case, when I come across “I could care less” in novels, it is obvious from the context that it is meant to convey not caring at all. 
    As for those who argue that “I couldn’t care less” could be taken to mean “I care so deeply about this that I couldn’t possibly care less”- GET REAL!  When has anybody ever used it in that context? Nobody would ever assign that meaning to ‘I couldn’t care less’. Talk about grasping at straws!

  • Dan Colborne

    I believe this slang term has evolved from “I could care less?” with an interrogative inflection, meaning, “Do you really imagine I could care less?”. This makes sense, but with the loss of the inflection it becomes a statement and in fact a misstatement. Concerning the entire matter, however, I could care less. Meaning, of course, I care a little, but not very much.

  • Pat

    I’m happy to have found this page. At last I know there is debate about this. Such a small thing, I suppose, but it irks me no end to here people say “I could care less”. I’ve adapted to, even use some of the newer expressions but the “I could care less” irritates me no end. It’s the epitome of language misuse, especially since I don’t think it warrants correcting the other person since its use is so widespread now. I think some of the relatively new colloquialisms are clever and succinctly capture their intent but when someone says “I could care less”, my inner wordsmith goes into spasms – lol…

  • Iain

    @Gareth Jones on July 19, 2011 11:48 am

    “I hear “could care less” a lot on American TV. If the intention of the individual was to say that they care to a degree on a particular subject and that it would therefore be possible for them to “care less”, then that’s fine.

    However, in the context of the conversation as a whole it’s clear that this is not what they mean to say at all. In fact what they mean is that they don’t care at all in which case saying that it’s possible for them to care less about the subject is contradictory and therefore an obvious mistake.”

    You say yourself, at the start of your second paragraph, that the meaning is perfectly clear. This has been repeated over and over by others. I defy any native North American speaker to say that they have ever honestly been mistaken when hearing the phrase used in this way. If it is an idiomatic phrase, and it is unambiguous when said with the correct intonation, which it invariably is, then how could it be wrong? To say so is the epitome of an oxymoron.

    What’s more, although it retains its original literal meaning, who ever really uses it that way? I can see how using it in text on the internet may lead to confusion, but to attack it in its verbal form because it may cause confusion simply demonstrates your own unfamiliarity with a commonly used idiomatic phrase. It is you, not the speaker, who is lacking the requisite communication skills in this context.

  • starsNbars

    interesting thread…I was a “could” hater, but now, after reading here, am starting to nearly believe that there could, just possibly, originally have been an ironical component to the “could” expression…. or is it just a retro-excuse for an illiterate mangling of the original expression by immigrants whose native language was not English, ach, I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.
    Prescriptive vs descriptive is a major issue (not equal to problem) in all of this; obviously our lovely mongrel mutt of a language has evolved pell-mell, and has prob’ly incorporated many eggcorns and spoonerisms, leaving little trace, but it behoves us to keep the limits wide and the variety large, while simultaneously questioning changes which appear to come for no other reason than for changes’ sake. I feel this particular neologism irks some of us because it appears to be an example of the latter, in addition to being an illiterate mistake/ sarcasm fail.
    The non-Americans in this thread perhaps feel that the USA has a more than just degree of license to wreak random changes to the language, due to its power through television and motion pictures, and so feel pushed into a conservative role. But, hey, just ‘cos loadsa folks say it, don’t make it correct; I’d personally like to see this hillbillyism die out due to a widespread effort of thought on our collective behalves….’hey, I been thinkin’ ’bout that ‘spression “could care less”….. I reckon it don’t make sense, let’s try it the other way round…shucks, know what..it makes more sense if you say “couldn’t care less”….’
    It’s a no-brainer, I say, let’s go for the way that makes more sense.

  • Montana Miles

    The term “I couldn’t care less” means that you have zero care. Zero is an absolute. So if you revisit a subject you say you couldn’t care less about it means you have not reached the zero point as demonstrated by your return to the subject; Therefore you could still care less.

  • Will

    Who decided to blame this on the Americans? As an American, I believe we are already maligned enough. As an expatriate living in a commonwealth country, I daily endure English translations (colour vs. color…. realise vs. realize …. and so forth.)

    If my brethren are responsible for introducing the horribly incorrect form of “I COULD care less…”, can someone please provide some credible evidence. If it exists, I will unhappily accept it and carry on correcting all offenders when I witness the incorrect usage.

    It is without question my biggest pet peeve. I am here ragging on it today because I’ve just read a quote from a prominent politician in the NYT who has used the incorrect form. Simply put, if you cannot figure out how and when to use this phrase *correctly*, you risk being considered ignorant.

  • Koen Belgium

    I could care less about this whole debate. =)

  • TS

    I don’t care if it’s become a common colloquialism, when someone says “I could care less” I want to punch them in the face, it sounds so stupid.

  • dare2be

    I could care less, if I cared to. ;-P

  • Funslinger

    A clarification of a part of my previous post:

    However, “She wanted John and myself to take charge” would be incorrect. From the subject’s (the one performing the action) viewpoint self would not be me. It would be her. In order for “she” to act on self, it would have to refer to her. “She wanted John and herself to take charge” would be correct. But when “she” is refering to someone else, self is incorrect. “She wanted John and me to take charge” is correct.

  • Funslinger

    happysoul on February 12, 2010 11:11 pm
    “I could not care less” can also imply that you cared a lot about something.
    I cared about her so much that I could NOT care less. =)

    —————-

    happysoul, you must include the “I cared about her so much” part for that to be the case. The same should apply to the phrase “I could care less.” One should have to include the prefix “as if” in order for it to have the intended meaning. The intent of speech is to accurately communicate your information. When parts of statements are left out, it only hampers communication, not enhances it.

  • Funslinger

    john Ireland said, “So do I, Jeremy. When an older person like myself says, “I could care less,” I assume they know they are using a shorthand version of the longer saying. I cringe when a younger person uses it because they don’t know why the say the opposite of what they mean.”

    John, you have committed a mistake that many people now make. You have incorrectly used the word ” myself” in place of the word “me.” I often find it laughable for someone to place the following sentence at the end of a letter, “You can contact myself at the number below.”

    In order to properly use “myself” the speaker must be the subject. e.g. “I wanted John and myself to take charge” would be correct. However, “She wanted John and myself to take charge” would be incorrect. From the subject’s (the one performing the action) viewpoint “myself” would not be “me.” It would be her. Therefore, “She wanted John and me to take charge” would be correct.

    And, in your sentence, it should’ve been “When an older person like me…”

  • ajs

    @zerc: “Logically, “couldn’t care less” is the only one that makes sense.”

    Ah, Humans. Nothing if not logical, right?

  • kevin

    My interpretation of “I could care less”:

    1. If we continue to discuss this topic, I will continue to lose interest.
    (YES, you CAN care less. You just haven’t reached that point. All you want to convey by saying “I could care less” is that you’re losing interest.)

    2. Because of my waning interest, I have chosen to disregard the topic from this point on.
    (You are avoiding the situation in which you would care less by uttering the phrase “I could care less” and then immediately ceasing acknowledgement of the topic.)

    Either that, or a more ironic version of “I couldn’t care less.”

    seems legit

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