A confusion in conversational English

Ali A Parsa
by Ali A Parsa

I like to remind my fellow Iranian-Americans to distinguish these two expressions and do not ever confuse the two. Don't feel bad though because many Americans make the same mistake. I am not a linguist, but perhaps the confusion has something to do with the wiring of the brain and wrong interpretation of certain phrases in certain categories. It may even have a fancy name. I do know however, that the reason such mistakes become pandemic in America, has a cultural explanation. I recall an expression I was taught in Iran when I was in fourth grade that went, "Two friends are like two hands that should wash off the dirt off of each other." What a wonderful lesson. According to that we were taught not take offense when we were corrected by ohters, but even thank them. Later on in America I found out that in most cases it is not polite to correct others and it was their right to be wrong. What a nonsense interpretation of respect!

I have seen several writers on this site who use "I could care less" when they should say "I couldn't care less."I had contemplated to write this for a long time, but I did not do it till tonight when I was watching CNN and heard Lindsey Graham-one of the gurus of coservative Republicans saying "I could care less" about some issues! That triggered me to write this. Does that mean that people like Lindsay Graham have to do with educating the world?

Thanks for reading this. Ali A. Parsa, Ph.D. But it did not take a Ph.D. to figure this out!


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I couldn't care less!

by Ali A Parsa on

Thanks copier101 for the comment even though the confusion between I couldn't care less and I could care less still lingers. You sound like a lintuist that I was hoping would shed some light on the subject. Are you?

Obviousl I was neither qualified to exlplore the subject deeply nor I had the time for it. Whoever circulated the wrong version in America did a disservice to the language. Here is the definition of "I could care less" in dictionary:

Slang Dictionary I could(n't) care less
  1. sent.
    I don't care!; I don't care to the maximum amount, and it
    is, therefore, impossible to care any less. (The affirmative version
    does not make sense, but is widely used, nonetheless.) : So you're late. I couldn't care less.
Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears.Fourth Edition.
Copyright 2007. Published by McGraw Hill.

Cite This Source My limited search went as far as asking some English teachers and ordinary people and they all disliked the use of "I could care less". I personally prefer "I couldn't care less" since according to the dictionary "The affirmative versions(I could care less)doesn't make sense."






by acopier101 on


[Q] From Leland Woodbury, New York; related questions came from Marc Schoenfeld in San Francisco and many others.: Your discussion of the contradictory interpretations of cheap at half the price reminds me of a similar conundrum that keeps flustering me in comparing the phrases I couldn’t care less and I could care less, each of which (at least here in America) is used to mean the same thing (which is basically I really don’t care), even though their syntax suggests that they should be opposites.

[A] The form I could care less has provoked a vast amount of comment and criticism in the past thirty years or so. Few people have had a kind word for it, and many have been vehemently opposed to it (William and Mary Morris, for example, in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, back in 1975, called it “an ignorant debasement of language”, which seems much too powerful a condemnation). Writers are less inclined to abuse it these days, perhaps because Americans have had time to get used to it.

A bit of history first: the original expression, of course, was I couldn’t care less, meaning “it is impossible for me to have less interest or concern in this matter, since I am already utterly indifferent”. It is originally British. The first record of it in print I know of is in 1946, as the title of a book by Anthony Phelps, recording his experiences in Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II. By then it had clearly become sufficiently well known that he could rely on its being recognised. It seems to have reached the US some time in the 1950s and to have become popular in the latter part of that decade. The inverted form I could care less was coined in the US and is found only there. It may have begun to be used in the early 1960s, though it turns up in a written form only in 1966.

Why it lost its negative has been much discussed. It’s clear that the process is different from the shift in meaning that took place with cheap at half the price. In that case, the inversion was due to a mistaken interpretation of its meaning, as has happened, for example, with beg the question.

In these cases people have tried to apply logic, and it has failed them. Attempts to be logical about I could care less also fail. Taken literally, if one could care less, then one must care at least a little, which is obviously the opposite of what is meant. It is so clearly logical nonsense that to condemn it for being so (as some commentators have done) misses the point. The intent is obviously sarcastic — the speaker is really saying, “As if there was something in the world that I care less about”.

However, this doesn’t explain how it came about in the first place. Something caused the negative to vanish even while the original form of the expression was still very much in vogue and available for comparison. Stephen Pinker, in The Language Instinct, points out that the pattern of intonation in the two versions is very different.

There’s a close link between the stress pattern of I could care less and the kind that appears in certain sarcastic or self-deprecatory phrases that are associated with the Yiddish heritage and (especially) New York Jewish speech. Perhaps the best known is I should be so lucky!, in which the real sense is often “I have no hope of being so lucky”, a closely similar stress pattern with the same sarcastic inversion of meaning. There’s no evidence to suggest that I could care less came directly from Yiddish, but the similarity is suggestive. There are other American expressions that have a similar sarcastic inversion of apparent sense, such as Tell me about it!, which usually means “Don’t tell me about it, because I know all about it already”. These may come from similar sources.

So it’s actually a very interesting linguistic development. But it is still regarded as slangy, and also has some social class stigma attached. And because it is hard to be sarcastic in writing, it loses its force when put on paper and just ends up looking stupid. In such cases, the older form, while still rather colloquial, at least will communicate your meaning — at least to those who really could care less.

Source: //www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-ico1.htm