The Word is “Careless”

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This comment on a site offering tips to writers brought me to a stop:

Does your writing suffer from waaaay too many em-dashes? Incareful authors often use them in place of a comma…

The standard negative form of careful is careless: “full of care,” and “without care.”

If a writer had a reason to form the negative with a prefix, the one to use with careful would be –un, not –in. With a few exceptions, the negative prefix -in is used with words of Latin origin. The word care is from Old Engish carian, cearian “be anxious, grieve; to feel concern or interest.”

But, there’s no need to bother with “uncareful” because we already have the word careless.

Here are some examples of the form “incareful” infesting the web:

But often enough, incareful work causes hazards.

The configuration scheme is infinitely flexible, and apparently has enough sharp edges for the incareful geek to hurt himself upon.

However, incareful reading can lead the impression that there are inconsistencies,

There is little or no opportunity to save what might be a good and even ground-breaking proposal sunk by the inexperience or incareful reviewing of one person.

…people who were incareful enough to get caught doing what a lot of men do every day”.

Most of the time a man will feel incareful if he is being unwanted in any way. (This writer may have been reaching for “uncared for.”)

I suspect that the popularity of the nonword “incareful” may have something to do with an unconscious feeling that it sounds less judgmental than careless.

Some synonyms for careless:

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19 thoughts on “The Word is “Careless””

  1. I’m 14 years old, and even I wouldn’t use this word; who would? It’s unnessary, it’s still a word, (technally) but it’s unnessary…

  2. I just tracked down the source article. “Incareful” is certainly the most egregious error, but the whole thing is pretty useless advice.

    If you click the link to her own pages, she is someone who ought to know better. The worry is that people will see her credentials and assume the advice is good.

  3. Careless and uncareful are not quite synonyms, I think. (I see as I write that the spellchecker doesn’t know uncareful!). If I am slipshod and uncaring I am careless. If I am distracted and fail to pay as much heed, attention or care to a task as I normally would, I think that would be uncareful. So that careless is failing to take much or any care, while uncareful is failing to take due care. Or is that just me?

  4. But the word under discussion is “incareful”, not “uncareful” (though I admit I don’t care for either).

  5. You are right, Clare. And the reactions show that it is not a native English word and that the writers of it need to be more careful!

  6. The writer Maeve quoted at the start of this blog is a white American (so presumably English is their native language) who is a professional writer and editor. They certainly should be more careful.

    (Who is Clare?)

  7. Whoops, Cecily (pause to change glasses) – sorry. Your last post raises a much wider question that is at the root of much of these discussions.

    English alone, apparently, of the top ten world languages has no regulatory authority. By far the greatest number of writers of English have it, I would guess, as their second language. Thus there are inevitable tensions set up both locally and internationally between those who have a native sense of what is ‘right’ (and there is more than one local group of these!) and the non-native speaker/writer whose ‘ear’ may be less well tuned, or indeed whose knowledge of the language may be deficient. Nonetheless, in that we have set curricula for the teaching of English, plus dictionaries and grammars for the purpose, publishing house rules etc., there is some degree of moderating of use. Hence it is possible to say that a given word, phrase, or whatever is not standard/native/’right’ (allowing for a degree of variation between ‘General American’, ‘standard (British) English’, etc. Which is how we recognize ‘incareful’ as a solepcism.

  8. I don’t know whether this is covering old ground, but Cicely’s post of 9.28 raises another area for discussion and that is the choice of possessive pronoun for the third person. I know this is quite fraught for some people! Cicely chooses ‘they/their’ where I would have used ‘she/her’. I’m not quarrelling, merely interested. It all has to do, I suspect, (more widely than the present instance) with questions of inclusivity (including gender), respect (distancing from the personal) etc., leading to plain uncertainty. For sure we are beyond the realm of pure logic, as in so much of language use. If this hasn’t had an article yet, Maeve, perhaps it could do with one?

  9. Tony,
    I’ll give some thought to your suggestion. I’m always amused when people appeal to logic in matters of language.

    My take on the he/she…their controversy:

  10. If you listen very, very carefully, Cecily, you’ll hear the creak of my knees as my forehead touches the ground in abject apology….

  11. @Tony: I thought French was unusual in having a language authority – and it doesn’t really work anyway. What are the other ones and are they any more effective?

    As for singular they/their, it raises few eyebrows or hackles in England (where I’m from), though Americans seem to dislike it (perhaps influenced by our different approach to collective nouns).

    I used it deliberately in that context to avoid being too specific about the author, though a quick Google (as I did) finds them.

    I don’t understand the objections to singular they/their. It was good enough for Jane Austen and we happily accept “you” as singular or plural. The prohibition was invented by Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress who wrote a popular grammar book. I think it’s time to ignore such a spurious “rule”.

  12. As I said. I wasn’t judging! In fact, the reason ‘their’ has a long history and such widespread use is surely because we need it. The alternatives are often tortuous or fatuous, or both!

    The quote on language regulation is and can be found her:

  13. @Tony: This page lists “language regulators”, but some of them merely promote a minority language, rather than regulate its use: . Even so, I confess I’m surprised there are so many of them.

    I think creating an English equivalent would be far harder because it is so widely used around the world, in different variants, both as a first and additional language. How would you get any degree of agreement?

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