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

By Maeve Maddox - 2 minute read

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

  • Tom

    You should have included a forth option in the poll: “I couldn’t care less”. 🙂

  • Gwen

    Uhm, where is this poll?

    I’m one of those very passionate when people say “could care less” because it makes no sense! And I also feel a twinge of sadness that this new, contradictory form enters the dictionary. At least it is marked as “American colloquialism” meaning “SLANG”.

  • Gwen

    (Oops, now I see the poll.)

  • Stu Venable

    It drives me crazy when people say “I could care less.” I always correct them.

  • Daniel

    Tom, good point I added a fourth option in the poll!

  • Trevor

    “Couldn’t care less” is proper because it’s saying that “I could not care any less about this; I care so little about this that I cannot care any less.”

  • Rootman

    I sometimes use “Could care less” followed by an abrupt “but not by much” to indicate that while I do care somewhat, I am not far from not caring at all.

    After all if it warrants me expressing my opinion I must care SOME.

  • Daniel

    Rootman, that for sure is a nice work around 🙂 .

  • Deleyne

    This reminds me of another shortened phrase. “He graduated high school in June.” It bothers me when people leave out the ‘from.’

  • Dave

    I’m no expert, but I have always taken “could care less” to be ironic and “couldn’t care less” to be proper and direct.

  • Robert Palmar

    Lyrically I prefer to say “I could not care less”.
    It adds emphasis and clarity to the meaning of the phrase.

  • Mikael Høilund

    I agree that “could care less” rolls off the tongue easier. However, I feel this pronunciation matter should be handled by the speaker, not the writer.

    A speaker of a text always takes some liberties regarding the pronunciation of certain constructs, and when they read “couldn’t care less,” it should be up to them to pronounce it as “could care less” – not the writer’s job to write it in the first place.

    Of course, in informal text, I find this colloquialism to be totally fair; as long as the writer is aware of the correct meaning.

  • Peter Robinson

    Using “could care less” demonstrates a lack of basic understanding of the semantics of English language.

  • Ray Blake

    As a Brit,I’ve never seen the sense in the reversed American version. I tend mentailly to add some missing words: “I could care less [if I really tried, but it wouldn’t be easy given how little I care right now.]”

  • Mark Ismay

    I am also a passionate supporter of the “couldn’t care less”‘ form, and it saddens me that this is even an argument up for debate. The form “could care less” is in contradiction to the meaning in which it is used.

    In Australia, the prevalence of American media is making the “could care less” form increasingly prevalent. For my ears, the slang form is not more euphonious as I cringe as a result of it. When the situation allows, I do correct those I encounter using the incorrect form (sadly not always successfully).

  • john Ireland

    In the late 1950’s, a verbose variation on the term “I couldn’t care less” was spoken, “I suppose I could care less, but I don’t see how.” Words were dropped out over the next few years until “I could care less” was all that was left. Those too young to know the history of the saying likely cringe and think it is nonsense. Those who know its derivation mentally hear the unspoken words and accept its meaning without concern.

  • Jeremy Dalton

    If that is indeed true, John, it would make much more sense.

    To throw my opinion into the pot, though: I much prefer the use of the form ‘couldn’t care less’ both lyrically and logically.

  • john Ireland

    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.

    I doubt it will ever go away, so I can’t let it bother me anymore.

  • Aubrey Granner

    I’ve always thought of it sarcastically as in: “Like (or ‘as if) I could care less!”.

  • Jon

    I think both are acceptable. If some people are bothered, I shouldn’t care less, could’t care less, or am I simply getting careless?

  • nufin’

    I don’t find “could care less” acceptable. It’s like “I didn’t do nothing,” which is becoming acceptable too.

  • Maeve

    surfmadpig,
    I followed your link.

    Priceless!

  • surfmadpig

    John Cleese made a passionate point against “could care less” in his podcast.

  • Yanki

    hi folks, I think both are acceptable. Because if we want to put a comment on a particular thing we can do it in a negative manner also.

  • EffYou

    I hate people who say “I ku-care-less”, it sounds low class and uneducated. I think the people who say it do so because it sounds cool rolling off the tounge that way, and it’s a bit more effort to say “I couldnt care less”.

  • nicole

    I, and everyone I grew up with/around (friends/family) have always used “could care less”.

  • Janis Graham

    How about “I could care less?” and “I couldn’t care less!”

  • Ronnie

    I use the term “I Could care less!” as in
    SARCASM!!!!!
    I mean it as, “As if I could care less…” lol

  • gan yoon ming

    i dont understand the meaning of this topic well.. anyway anyone willing to teach me? i really willing to learn bout english.. because my english is lousy.. right now i enter the college.. everyone of my college friend is using english..so i need to improve my english.. please add me markgan88@hotmail.com so i need some advise from u all bout english lesson..

  • Ashley

    I agree with Gwen – EXACTLY! “I could care less” is a SLANG – that is the end of the discussion right there.
    I get sooo annoyed when someone says it, but what I’m actually thinking is, “has this person stopped to think about what he or she is trying to say? If you don’t care – which is normally what they intend to say – then how could you care less??”

  • Bastards!!

    Honestly, people who get upset by this are nit-picking. Does “I couldn’t care less” make any sense, either? No, not really. The fact that you care enough to say “I couldn’t care less” is apparent. If it didn’t bother you to listen to whoever was talking, then you wouldn’t have said anything. What’s important is that people understand what you are trying to say.

    The phrase “I couldn’t care less” can make sense depending on its usage. It’s actually a more polite way of informing somebody that you are losing interest in what they are saying, not that you have lost all interest. It can be a short way of saying “I might care less, if you continue to talk about this subject”. Don’t believe me? Look up the definition of the word “could”. However, the fact that it is confused with “I couldn’t care less” causes many problems.

    I’ve heard people say that you must qualify when, or under what conditions, you care less. Well, if that’s the case, then you must also qualify when you will not care less. The fact that it is a past tense of can should make that obvious. Somebody could say, “So you didn’t care until I brought it up, but now you are enthralled?”. Think about that for a couple seconds before you blow your top. The obvious meaning is always implied.

    Also, which phrase is sarcastic? They can both be used sarcastically. As for whether it is known to be sarcastic, you can easily tell by the speaker’s inflection. Hopefully the speaker knows what he is saying. I highly doubt that many of the “I couldn’t care less” proponents have any clue what they are saying.

    Try saying “I no longer care”. Most similar phrases are also fine. “I couldn’t care less” is too ambiguous.

  • Keith

    @Bastards!! I couldn’t disagree with you more. I’m sorry. Perhaps that’s too ambiguous. What I mean to say is, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    To say, “The phrase “I couldn’t care less” can make sense depending on its usage,” is ridiculous. It makes perfect sense just as it is. In four words, it succinctly conveys that a person cares so little about something that they could not possibly care less. We don’t need to know what it is they don’t care about, or why. We can safely assume that whatever it is, they don’t care about it, at all.

    Also, it is not, as you say, “a more polite way of informing somebody that you are losing interest in what they are saying…” In fact, it is rather impolite and abrasive. If my wife were to ask me whether I thought she should paint the kitchen white, or yellow, and I were to reply, “I couldn’t care less,” I might be telling the truth, but I highly doubt that she would take my response as a polite suggestion that she rephrase the question to make it more interesting to me.

    It is truly ironic that you spent five paragraphs trying to convince readers that “I couldn’t care less” is “too ambiguous,” and in the process made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

  • Matt

    I am British and as such would obviously find an American colloquialism strange, but I have to say, ‘could care less’ really irritates the hell out of me. Simply because of the logical inconsistency – bring out a new phrase if you will, but please! Have it make sense!

  • Carlos

    It irritates me to no end when people say, “I could care less,” when it is clear that their intention is to communicate that they do not care at all. It demonstrates a lack of intelligence, plain and simple.

  • could but don’t

    If you could care less, then why don’t you, and why should I care that you could care less?, I couldn’t!. twats.

  • finstagfunk

    ‘I could care less’ = if you do this I might over look this. L2People Thanks

  • Bastards

    @Keith

    You helped point out one of my mistakes, of which I’m sure there are many. For that, I’m grateful. In the first sentence of the second paragraph, I meant to say “I could care less”. However, you did nothing other than provide meaningless examples in a rude way from that point forward. Your grammar is obviously better than mine, but you don’t seem to know anything about creating a good argument.

    I’m only 22 and, to be honest, don’t understand everything about the English language. You, however, are probably much older and hung up on the things that are absolutely pointless to argue about. I’m sure you knew what I was trying to say, but dodged my point by arguing against my typo. Lighten up!

  • my2penceworth

    @Bastards

    Sorry Bastards, I have to to fall in with Keith on this, despite the slightly rude last paragraph. You claim he provided meaningless examples. The examples he provided were clear and unambiguous and demonstrated the common English usage of the phrase “I couldn’t care less”.

    The phrase itself is in no way ambiguous – I could not care less about what you’ve just said to me because I have no interest whatsoever.

    Or, if one wants to get smacked in the face for being incredibly annoying:

    “My interest level in your statement is equal to 0. Interest levels can be expressed as a number in the range 0 to 100, with no negative values permissible. Thus, as I have already stated my interest level in your statement is zero, it is impossible for me to be any less interested than I currently am…ergo, I could not care less, or to make use of the shortened form, I couldn’t care less” 😉

    The chances of getting that statement out before you’re unconscious on the floor, or talking to a deserted room are very slim.

    “I could care less” isn’t confused with “I couldn’t care less”, it’s used in the the same context and with the same intended meaning.

    The phrase “I could care less” taken alone, without any knowledge of any extra qualifying phrase, simply does not make sense if the intended implication is that you have no interest in a statement..and this is is the intended implication in all the situations I’ve encountered it.

    my god, I really need to find something better to do with my time…

    Toodle pip

  • Tim S

    We (those who speak English as a native language from an early age) learn English through COMMUNICATION, not through an English class — therefore, the rules which govern how the English language should run (which, if you have ever learned another language, are abstract and often contradictory to what would be expected) are not implemented, for the most part, unless learned through communication.

    So when we criticize people for how they speak, we should recognize that the criticism is unwarranted because the individual is generally ignorant of any other way. Recognize that ignorance does not equal stupidity. Ignorance deals with a lack of exposure to something, not a lack of intelligence.

    I DO try to correct my errors in speech (saying “Jill got the ball from Jim and me” instead of “Jill got the ball from Jim and I” — “I” is the subject form and “me” is the object form)…but in casual conversation, it is probably too much to expect someone to be concentrating on all the grammar rules they’ve been taught in English class and elsewhere (usually by others cutting them off during conversation to correct them — simply worthless when the point is understood) when simply trying to talk. Give people a break….I’m very educated and I still say “I could care less” out of habit when both I and the listener know I mean “I couldn’t care less.” We move on in life and there’s no bitterness or hatred or judgment….isn’t that the way interaction should be? Who ever thought we’d hate people for how they speak….simply another way to reveal our own ignorance of resorting to hatred instead of love.

  • sydney

    uugghh its my biggest pet peeve! i always correct people… it doent make any sense. i feel bad for people trying to learn this stupid language

  • Joelle

    If you could NOT care less, then you do care a little. Or do you? Isn’t it sarcasm?

    If I could care less, that would mean that I WANT to care less than already do. I care so little that I WANT you to know that I WANT to care even less.

    Caring less and not caring less should be a choice, not a grammatic battle.

    When I cannot care less, I will say so.

  • uk

    Someone saying “could care less” is like someone saying “pacific” instead of specific. It is a mistake that has become accepted over time, even if it is meaningless. Another example is saying “should of” instead of “should have”. The English language is quite complicated, and has to be made simple so those with a lower IQ can learn enough of it to get by. This simplifed English is known as American English.

  • Tim S

    uk, your comment reveals little about the people who say “could care less,” but quite a bit about your arrogance and ignorance. You should be ashamed of your bigotry.

    But let’s put your blatantly obvious bigotry aside and deal with the errors in what you said:

    First, you categorize an entire nation as having a lower IQ because of shifts in language. It reveals your ignorance because every language, despite the intelligence of the people, changes over time. Also, you take a nation with at least 4 dialects and lump them into one group of people that you designate as having a lower IQ.

    Second, you make an unfounded statement that “could care less” and “should of” are CREATED in order to accommodate people with a lower IQ in America – “has to be made simple so those with a lower IQ can learn enough of it to get by.” Your statement implies that it was an ACTIVE EFFORT by intelligent people to help those lacking intelligence to be able to speak English. If that is not your meaning, then you might want to retract your entire comment, because you’re showing your inability to express yourself appropriately through the English language.

    Third, the complications found in the English language reveal an inability to maintain consistent rules, long before American English evolved. People learning English as a second language struggle with the frequent deviation from grammatical rules. Essentially you’ve stated British English comes from people with a higher IQ. Again, you might want to retract your statement altogether because you’ve made a fool of yourself by not recognizing that your line of reasoning would mean that the inconsistency in the English language (before American English) reveals our inferiority to all other people groups whose languages follow grammatical rules more consistently.

    Good luck with your bigotry, uk.

  • lola

    i think they both sound good but i think the “I could care less”
    kinda indirectly means that something is so unimportant that you could be caring less about it rather than talking about it with someone lol idk

  • lola

    i think they both sound good but i think the “I could care less”
    kinda indirectly means that something is so unimportant that you could be caring less about it rather than talking about it with someone lol idk

  • Jme

    I say ‘I could care less’ to mean I could conceivably care less about the subject if we continue to discuss it. However, I have no desire to discuss the matter any further.

  • NewSpeak

    If you say “I could care less” when what you mean to say is that you don’t care about something, then you are just spouting what you perceive to be a ready-made phrase without having any understanding of its inherent meaning. You are corrupting language, helping it evolve into a form which makes less sense than it does now. If anybody wants to complain that English is a complicated language to learn and has no discernible rules (and I see that several in these comments have made just such a point), it’s because it has a long history of people bastardising it like this.

    If anybody here is of the persuasion to use ridiculous phrases such as “I could care less” and think it unimportant that the meaning is muddled (thereby indicating that the person attempting to express that meaning is equally muddled), I would recommend that you read George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” wherein he takes aim at those who speak in stock phrases so as to avoid actually having to think about what they themselves are trying to say.

    http://www.george-orwell.org/Politics_and_the_English_Language/0.html

    He knew what he was talking about.

  • john

    I searched google and came to this site just because I was reading something and came across the phrase “could care less.” I was wondering if the phrase was even really grammatically correct, given that it makes no logical sense given the phrase’s intended meaning. According to this site, I guess it’s like using the word “ain’t”–if something is used incorrectly enough times, they just add it to the dictionary. It doesn’t make it right, it just makes our human culture that much dumber and gives lexicologists a job to do instead of reprinting the same dictionary over and over.

  • Brad K.

    I think of “I could care less” as implying a phrase like “I could care less, if I cared at all”. That is, there is such little care or concern that if it could be measured, it would be reduced.

    “I couldn’t care less” is simpler, that there is such little care or concern, that if it could be measured, it would be reduced.

    “I couldn’t care less” seems more colloquial, “I could care less” more highbrow and disdainful as well as uncaring.

  • tbusby

    What is most interesting to me is that so many people get worked up over such a silly little thing. I couldn’t care less if someone says “I couldn’t care less” OR “I could care less”. Life is too short to let something as petty as this get to you.

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