Usage quandaries, part 5: Could care less
This week, we wrap up our series on the usage quandaries from Bill Walsh’s tweet “It begs the question: Did you try and literally infer you could care less?” by taking a look at could care less.
Could care less
Just as I was beginning to think last week’s meeting of the minds was a fluke, along comes could care less.
Could care less is a variation of couldn’t care less, an idiom that indicates that you aren’t capable of caring less about something than you currently do. That is, you don’t care.
Couldn’t care less first appeared in 1944, with could care less first appearing in 1955, according to Ben Zimmer in “Do We Care Less About Could Care Less?” Couldn’t care less has historically been the more accepted of the two, but could care less has been increasingly used over the years to nearly match its predecessor in some writing styles. Neither shows signs of dying out, despite earlier reports to the contrary.
Could care less has plenty of detractors. The main argument (disregarding all the emotional, baseless “It’s ruining the language!” cries) is that could care less doesn’t make literal sense. And that’s true. But neither do many other idioms, such as cat got your tongue, bite the dust, and pulling my hair out. That’s the trick with idioms: they don’t have to make literal sense to have meaning.
Walsh makes a fair point copyeditors should remember, however. “An idiom need not necessarily be logical, but if the logical version is still alive and well, it’s vastly preferable to the illogical one.” On this point, I agree.
And here’s another note: Both phrases are considered casual language by many reference works. If the manuscript disallows casualisms, you can dance away from the problem and eliminate them both. But if you have to choose between one or the other, lean toward couldn’t care less. Unless your author cares more.
The rest of the series
Did you miss the earlier parts of this series? Catch up on those installments: