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

By Maeve Maddox

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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).

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

  • coologuy1957

    tbusby is correct. People are getting all worked up about something sarcastic that has nothing to do with logical or proper grammar! Besides, the more of you there are that get upset by it, the more I will say it to irritate you!!

  • MK

    Of course, in terms of logic, “couldn’t care less” is the only one that makes sense. But it doesn’t change the fact that “could care less” is a recognized and understood expression. And it’s been around before most of us were even born.

    So when you are ‘correcting’ people, you really aren’t. “Could care less” is a colloquialism, just the same as all the other ones that aren’t your pet peeves.

    Obviously, it is okay to use “couldn’t care less”, too, because that makes sense as a normal statement (but really it just seems like someone who is messing up the expression). Still, no problem.

    But to go the extra step and correct and lecture someone who uses “could care less” is silly (and obnoxious).

  • Michael

    And the American destruction of the English language continues…

  • Jason

    The problem is that, while “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” may seem interchangeable, the first phrase is an irreducible unit, since breaking it down into its component words will give an incorrect interpretation of its meaning. The meaning of an irreducible phrase must be memorized.

    The reason that the existence of many irreducible phrases is troublesome is that, in the long run, it exponentially expands the number of units a person must memorize to be fluent in English.

    Imagine if we had to memorize a separate phrase for every idea we wanted to express! Conversation would be reduced to a few basic exchanges.

  • Sebastian

    Ahh I love discussion boards, I always get at least a good chuckle.

    My favorite part is from “Bastards!!” in his attempt at explaining his original post; “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.” Haha. Didn’t you just write your own five paragraph diatribe?

    Then theres Thusby. Come on dude, everyone obssesses over something. Think about yours, it’ll come to you.

    And MK… OK how do I explain this amicably? Nope, theres no way. Um you’re telling me a person’s words dont matter because you assume to know what you are intended to understand. Communication was developed because assumptions just weren’t cuttin’ it.

    Whew. I think I have the most fun when I’m the most bored.

  • MK

    Arguments based on ‘English should be easy to learn’ are ridiculous. Sorry Jason, I’m not sure what you’re comparing English to, but if you think any language breaks down into nice ‘irreducible units’ that can conveniently looked up in a dictionary or run through Google Translate, you’ll be sadly disappointed.

    @Sebastian

    “cuttin'”? Hmm… I fail to comprehend what you are trying to communicate there. I would ASSUME it’s just a cute way of writing “cutting” but communication doesn’t work that way, right? But even if you’re ‘cutting’, what are you cutting? What’s “it”? That phrase just doesn’t make sense. It’s almost as if you’re using a FIGURE OF SPEECH.

    And there’s an apostrophe in “theres” which I might have thought was a typo except you did it twice.

    I really don’t know how you came to the conclusion that I said ‘words don’t matter’. I basically said like it or not, ‘could care less’ is an accepted expression and to try and correct people just makes you look like a fool.

    There’s a reason people say “could care less” but never “could agree more”… if you think slang/idioms/figures of speech don’t belong in a language because they make no sense when taken literally, well, good luck on your crusade.

  • Jen

    As a grammar geek I have greatly enjoyed this discussion… thanks. I had always thought that “could care less” was an uneducated bastardization of the proper phrase, “couldn’t care less.” I had no idea that people used it sarcastically or that there was once a longer version of it… thank you John Ireland for pointing that out!

    >>john Ireland on August 10, 2007 3:53 pm
    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.

  • furQ

    @Sebastian: Yes, yes, dance my puppets! You all exist to amuse me in my boredom haha I am the puppet master!

    Anyway, both versions of ‘care less’ are subtly different in meaning (the US english seems more ironic, whereas the British english is a statement of fact). There are plenty of cases where British english has borrowed and corrupted phrases from US english too, so lets forget about national prejudice.

    What really gets me is the phrase ‘beg the question’. This is a phrase which indicates a logical fallacy, but has been co-opted to mean something different. If we’re going to get Orwell on a phrase’s arse, we could at least save it for one that is directly involved in an expression of a cognitive process.

  • Toasty!

    I think if you try to correct someone, they will likely just use the phrase again on you…

  • JonD

    You’re giving people WAY too much credit if you claim that they’re using “could care less” sarcastically. It’s laziness, pure and simple. Americans have it backwards, they’re supposed to engage their brains BEFORE, not after, they open their mouths.

  • ml

    this is great! love my2penceworth’s comments on 3/2/09.

    “Could care less” has made it into the lyrics of a country song called “Do I” by Luke Bryan.

    I also get irritated when people say “Chomping at the bit” or “nip it in the butt.”

  • Jen

    ml – “Nip it in the butt” makes me cringe too. But what’s wrong with “chomping at the bit”? Isn’t that an equestrian reference?

  • ml

    Jen, I think it started as champing. Since chomping and champing mean the same thing I guess this example it is a little different from our original thread from the dead topic.

  • bbq burrito

    “I could care less” had no practical usage before it became an idiom. Anyone arguing that it lacks clarity should consider that. And those of you who presume to judge a person’s intelligence based on the phrases he uses are beneath contempt. Except for the British folk, who are just silly.

  • happysoul

    “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. =)

  • Louise

    @Jen and ml

    I believe that you don’t say ‘nip it in the butt’, it’s supposed to be ‘nip it in the bud’. You’re supposed to compare it to a flower when it’s a bud. You nip it before it starts growing.

    I’ve never heard ‘nip it in the butt’. I suppose that’s come about because bud and butt sound quite similiar. I’m suprised you’ve never read it though. Or is it an American translation??

  • Kyla

    Oh gosh there’s a whole cult following of the “couldn’t care less” supporters of which I am one your biggest proponents. It used to urk me to the utmost starting in oh, elementary school. I am not 23 and I have all but given up (another saying I don’t really understand). I still correct people. But they won’t stop. They just look at me as overly particular.

    But i do cringe. Keep up the good fight! Ignorance is not bliss–it urks us 🙂

  • JAY

    @happysoul What you said made NO sense at all!!

  • Amanda

    I hate when people say “I could care less” meaning they don’t care at all. I always correct my friends and family when they say it. “I couldn’t care less” is way more accurate and effective.

  • doreen

    well..it irritates me when i hear or read “I couldn’t care less” when meant they don’t care.
    To me the literal translation to “I couldn’t care less” is i don’t care less, which means they do care a little.

    IMO “I could care less” means just that – i could care less or i don’t care…or how about a compromise “I couldn’t care” or simply “I don’t care” but i will continue to say “I could care less” or “I don’t care”.

  • Harman

    Doreen,

    There are way too many errors in what you wrote. You may want to read what others wrote and then comment.

  • Un Americain

    I could care more about this stupid argument.

  • Andrew

    If someone is talking about something which I find uninteresting, I might say “This is uninteresting”. I might also say “This is interesting”, when in reality I still believe that it is uninteresting. I am stating something in opposition to my actual belief. This is known as “Sarcasm”.

    If in reality I could not care less about something, I might say “I could not care less”. I might also say “I could care less”, when in reality I still could not care less. I am stating something in opposition to my actual belief. This, too, is known as “Sarcasm”.

  • FineByMe

    Next up….

    Debate the use of the pithy and emotionally charged, “Tell me about it!”, vs the soulless, long-winded, but semantically correct, “Don’t tell me about it”.

    Sometimes rules are broken. No harm done.

  • mikeo

    I somewhat envy the people whom grammatical errors have no effect on as long as they understand the intent. It bugs the crap out of me.

  • ashleighh

    This annoys me so much. I read “I could care less.” all the time and i just don’t get it. It makes no sense whatsoever. I always think to myself, “Have they made an error? A typo? Or is this something they do on a regular basis?” Honestly, how does “I could care less.” portray that you don’t care at all? I wish I knew.

    ashleigh.

    ps. This thread is very entertaining. The way people get worked up over such little things is extremely amusing!

  • Eric

    Thanks for this topic. I googled it looking for some answers as to why people say “could” care less. I always thought it didn’t make any since and now I know I’m not alone. Haha.

  • Michael

    Sorry, Americans. “I could care less” is illogical and a bastardisation of English, and you know it.

  • Sarah

    I am so mad–I bought a study guide for the Teacher Certification exam for Florida–grades 6-12. It has “Couldn’t care less” labelled as “Incorrect” because, as the author says, it’s a double negative. I HATE when study guides have glaring errors. They’re supposed to be smarter than I am.

  • Keith

    I can’t say “I couldn’t care less” about this topic, but I can say “I could care less” for the simple reason that I couldn’t care more!

    Yes, it pains me when people say “I could care less” when they actually mean they couldn’t care less. Of course, if they genuinely mean that they could care less, that’s fine. As I said, I could care less about this topic. But I don’t.

    But let’s give the benefit of the doubt here for those who say they “could care less” when they couldn’t.

    With as much sarcasm as you can possibly muster, read this line:
    “As if I could care less” .

    Is it not reasonable to truncate this, with appropriate sarcasm, to “I could care less” just as one might (and does) say “I should be so lucky” when he is really saying (but seldom says) “As if I should be so lucky”

    Anyway, is there any discussion on “can not” versus “cannot” anyone can point me to? “Can not” is often, but not always, incorrectly used and it is something else that I could care less about but don’t.

  • steph spez

    Its not english that they are speaking when they say could care less….. They might as well say that they could care less…but i dont…..how does that make sence….maybe go back to grade six grammar class.?

  • MightyMouse

    This is a silly debate. Obviously if your level of caring = 0, and we assume that there is no option to take caring to a negative integer, then it is impossible to care less. To state that you ‘could care less’ either introduces the possibility of negative caring or makes no sense. If caring = 0, then ‘couldn’t care less’ is the only phrase to use; the alternate phrasing tells us that you care, at least a little. If ‘could care less’ must be used then please couch it in the terms shared by John Ireland so that your meaning is clear.

    To those that claim the use of ‘could care less’ is sarcasm: It should be noted that sarcasm is not something that translates well into the written word. Previous comments also lead to the conclusion that the definition of sarcasm should be researched further. While you’re there, look up ‘irony’ and save us all some grief in future.

    uk – 18-05-09 (dd-mm-yy, how dates SHOULD be noted) – commented that English had to be made easier to learn and so developed into American English. His/her bigotry may shine through the comment but to a certain extent he/she is not wrong. American English contains MANY words and phrases the meaning of which has been changed unnecessarily.
    Some examples:
    ‘purse’ – a small bag or container for carrying money and small personal items. If you can shove a cat into it, it is not a purse.
    ‘fanny’ – no, really, look this up; it doesn’t mean what you think it means.
    ‘ass’ – It’s a donkey folks, Equus africanus asinus to share the Latin, not a human body part.
    ‘flue’ – a part, but not the whole, of a chimney.
    ‘fag’ – a cigarette
    ‘bum’ – a body part (see ‘ass’ above) rather than a scrounger or homeless person
    The list is almost endless and others will probably add to it.

    In a further digression it should be noted that the shortened form of the word ‘mathematics’ should either be ‘maths’ or ‘math.’; the dot indicating that the last letter of the abbreviation is not the last letter of the original word. The dot is absent from the form ‘maths’ as the letter ‘s’ is the last letter of ‘mathematics’. See how that works? Clever isn’t it? Try applying it to other abbreviations and see how much fun you can have.

    Oh, & the letter ‘U’ appears in a significantly greater number of words than American English would suggest.

    Perhaps if we all spoke the same language there would be less confusion and conflict in the world and we would not, for example, have invaded sovereign powers to ‘bring about democracy’/’find weapons of mass destruction’. We would instead have invaded to ‘ensure the continuing flow of oil’.

    @Sarah: Return the study guide, ask for a refund. If we remove the pesky apostrophe from the phrase we have: ‘could NOT care less’. Careful analysis reveals the presence of a single negative (NOT) as the word ‘less’ is only a negative in certain mathematical circumstances (e.g. 200 less 55 equals 145). When teachers are incorrectly trained their student’s don’t have a hope.

    @steph spez: That should be: senSe; and apostrophes belong here: It’s, & here: don’t. It would validate your suggestion to “go back to grade six grammar class” if you hadn’t made some classic errors.

  • Ricardo

    I speak English as a second language, and it really burns my eyes when I read “I could care less”…

    It makes no sense, and is clearly wrong (non-sensical) to say that expression. The reasoning that “everybody around here says it” is to me no excuse. It sounds like someone caught in the act (in the wrong) trying to hide in the crowd.

    It reminds me of the “they’re/there” and “you’re/your” trap that so many native English speakers fall into. This mistake too burns my eyes, stops my reading, has me gasping. I don’t think I or anyone who learned English as a 2nd language would ever mess these terms up. At least in this case no native speaker would come to the defense and say it is a permissible evolution of the language….

  • Roger dat

    Wow, a bunch of english nazi’s getting mad over 2-3 letters and an apostrophe.

    Get off your english high horse. Not everything has to be so rigid. If people understand what you’re communicating what difference does it make?

    How ’bout dem cowboys?…ooops crucify me.

  • I really don’t give a care

    I could care less= I could care less than what I”m caring, which is zero= I don’t care at all.

    I could care less= a softer way of saying I don’t care

    I could not care less= Some idiot trying to explain this is THE only or correct way to get your point across, with this type of idiom expression.

    Some People treat English like math and follow strict rules on what they deem is correct. There’s no such thing as correct or proper english. It’s only correct in how you choose to make your money.

  • melissa

    I’ve always wondered why people say such a thing that makes no sense at all. Now I know for sure it is an grammar error. Jeesh! It will for now on be like nails on a chalkboard every time I hear it.

  • Ricardo

    > I could care less= I could care less than what I”m caring, which is zero= I don’t care at all.

    Hahaha! This phrase you so nonchalantly use is pure non-sense and the reason why this whole discussion started. You say “I could care less than what I”m caring, which is zero”. Right! You could care less like you could be more invisible than something that is not there.

    > Some People treat English like math and follow strict rules on what they deem is correct.

    But what is language except words and rules? Steven Pinker wrote a whole book to nail that point

    You want to change the rules? Fine. You are creating a dialect. Perhaps we should do as the Germans do: they have Hoch Deutsch (high German, which is the strict, official, formal German language) and then they have plain Deutsch — which can be quite different and carry strong local flavor — in pronounciation, vocabulary and even grammar.

    So… keep in mind we are discussing “High English” here. And don’t feel obliged. Instead feel free to create your own friendly neighborhood dialect.

  • Anonymous

    Both of them are vague, which is why I never use them. I couldn’t care less can easily be twisted into “I care this much, and couldn’t possibly care less than the amount of care that I already have”

    conversely, “could care less” can be twisted into “I could care less, as I do care to a certain degree”

    I just say, I don’t care, or I don’t give a damn.

  • Wally

    I like Hawkeye’s remark to Trapper, “The instrument has yet to be invented which could measue my indifference to that topic”. Try that instead of “I couldn’t care less”.

  • ajs

    The thing that drives me crazy about this argument is the prescriptive attitude and knee-jerk rejection of language change and novel forms. It doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to realise that there’s a huge, unspoken “As if…” which precedes “I could care less”. It’s sarcastic. To argue, as someone has above, that its use is slang and that the ‘discussion ends there’ is just a ridiculous position to take. To argue about language changes being unneccesary (other than those in a preferred direction of course!) is rather like Canute and his beach.

    And MightyMouse, perhaps you should read Pinker’s ‘Language Instinct’, in which he deals with the US usage of the idiom and labels it sarcastic, similar to ‘self-deprecatory jewish humo(u)r’. While it may not be evident in writing, it certainly is phonologically. Language isn’t simply the written word, although the latter is certainly easier to corral with arbitrary rules.

    In short, LOL SPERG MOAR!

  • Incompetent

    If you couldnt care less, then why is it assumed that it is because you are already at the lowest level of caring? is that the only reason that a person could care less about something?

    I couldnt give you any money because…? I dont have any? I require it to purchase something of my own? Because you are a moron and i could care less about you?

    Yes, i could care less about you. The amount of care that i have for you doesnt matter to me. I could care less about you.

  • Couldn’t be less incompetent

    “If you couldnt care less, then why is it assumed that it is because you are already at the lowest level of caring?  is that the only reason that a person could care less about something?”

    Because that is the only explanation that is absolute, that does not require additional assumptions or information. And because no additional information was given. Counter example? “I couldn’t care less about you because you are my sister, and sisters care for each other”. See that in this case more information is required.

    “The amount of care that i have for you doesnt matter to me. I could care less about you.”

    Now that is incoherent. You first say the amount doesn’t matter and then make a descriptive assertion about the amount?

    Let me fix it and make it coherent:
    “The amount of care that i have for you doesnt matter to me. I *don’t know* whether I could care less or whether I could care more about you. I just never think about it.”

    I could’t marry you

  • Steve

    English speakers should stop using such indirect ways to express their thoughts. Just say I don’t care.

  • John & Julie Eidsvoog

    It’s sad that today’s Google search shows these results:
    “could care less” 13.8 million
    “couldn’t care less” 8.2 million

    BTW, “could’ve” still beats out over “could of” by a wide margin. I guess it will take some more time for the complete dumbing down of our society.

  • ajs

    Guys, coherence isn’t just a matter of logic. If you’re discussing the written sentences, I would argue that you’re missing a huge component of how these phrases work semantically. At least in their original forms, they’re phonologically very different. One is a flat statement, the other accompanied by a figurative roll of the eyes and unspoken preceding ‘as if’. Perhaps the internet is to blame for flattening out some of the differences between speech and writing. I’m just saying that there’s a giant chunk of context which is vital for an understanding of the differences between these idioms, and by making a simplified argument about the grammatical logic of the written sentences you run the risk of missing the point.

    Having said that it’d be nice to get access to some corpus data to see if there are actual measurable differences in KWIC.

  • ajs

    On a related note, ‘Riddley Walker’ is a good example of linguistic change that makes idiomatic expression eventually empty and meaningless to speakers, who then fill it with a new and different sense of meaning. It also owns 🙂

  • Starlet

    I’ll just bring it down to math: Can you have less than 1? Yes. You cannot, however have less than 0. If you could care less than 0, then you could care less. However, since you CANNOT have less than 0 you cannot care less.

  • ajs

    *facepalm*

  • sk

    I’m with Bastards! on this one. I think everyone obsessing over a 50 year old idiomatic expression that has worked its way into the day to day vernacular really needs to get a life.

    I also like her point — that the very act of saying “I could not care less” indicates SOME degree of caring. Or else why bother to say anything at all?!!

    In terms of PURE grammar, there’s no doubt that “I couldn’t care less” is “proper and correct”. However, to say that anyone using “I could care less” is ignorant — well, THAT’S just ignorant, IMO. Life’s simply too short to invest that much negative energy in something so insignificant.

    To anyone whose world comes crashing down every time you hear someone say “I could care less”…I’d really hate to know you.

  • Guttles

    lol this is not complicated. if you care about something, you can certainly care less. if you don’t care about something, you can’t care less. both uses are logical under the right circumstances. for instance, a girl yells “you don’t care about me!” at her mom. and mom replies “well, i could care less.” or, someone is trying to talk to you about something that you’re indifferent to, and you say “i couldn’t care less.” simply because you don’t care. both are correct, and understandable. if someone uses either one incorrectly by meaning the opposite. that is their problem, you shouldn’t care. if anything, “i couldn’t care less” should be replaced with a simple “i don’t care.” lol you can’t mistake that. anyways this savage, native american doesn’t care about paragraphs. take that, queen in title only.

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