One Word: Could/Couldn’t

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I couldn’t care less about the word “could”.

Also, I could care less about “couldn’t”.

Except when we use “could” and “couldn’t” – words that profess to be exact opposites – to mean exactly the same thing.

How is that even possible?

One Word: Could/Couldn't

Spoiler alert: It’s possible! I didn’t think so, but I was wrong. Read on to learn how and why I’ve had to change my mind.

Think about those expressions: “I couldn’t care less” and “I could care less”. Which is correct? And which (if either) do you use?

For much of my life, just about everyone said “I couldn’t care less” about such-and-such. They meant: “I have no interest in this question.” In other words: “My ‘caring’ threshold here is as low as it could go, so don’t bother me with this.”

Language Goes Off the Rails

But one day, some influential person said it differently. (Movie star, newscaster, politician? I have no idea.) That someone said “I could care less” – and that wording (“could” in place of “couldn’t”) caught on.

The expression suddenly was more popular than ever, but now it was flipped onto its head.

What jarred me about this was two things: (1) The new version didn’t seem to make any sense; and (2) hardly anyone seemed to notice.

The public, in other words, couldn’t (or perhaps could) have cared less.

Construed literally, “I could care less” means “I do care somewhat”. But that was never anyone’s intention. Their intention was and is: “I have no interest in this question.”

In other words, “I couldn’t care less” and “I could care less” both had become ways of saying the same thing: “I really, really, really don’t care about this!”

Now I get that each of these two sayings is an idiomatic expression. That’s what linguists call any word-grouping which, through usage, has come to mean more than the sum of its parts. “It’s raining cats and dogs”, for example.

Idiomatic expressions – if taken literally – often make no sense. They don’t need to. Their whole purpose is to allow us to convey sensible stuff without worrying about the literal sense of our words. That’s a good thing.

Normally, however, we don’t use two utterly and completely opposite expressions to mean precisely the same thing. This always struck me as an extreme case of language weirdness, to put it mildly.

Hope springs infernal. In this case, I dared hope that the “could” variant was a passing fad. That people would tire of it, realize it was a mistake, and go back to the “couldn’t” wording that at least made some semblance of sense.

Not a chance! “I could care less” dug in, became ever more entrenched, and today seems indelibly engraved into popular English speech.

Taking a Second Look

For years, I grumbled about “could care less”, assuming it must be flat-out wrong. Now, I’m not so sure!

Some recent digging around the Internet confirmed what I had long assumed: Many other folks also have strong opinions about these expressions. Many are purists who still feel (as I once did) that “could care less” is unacceptable.

But many others argue that “could care less” is justified on its own terms – and not only by popular usage.

In language, there’s always the school of thought that says, “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em.” Here, there’s more. Let’s see what sense we can make of both these competing expressions.

First, “I couldn’t care less” is a saying that makes its point with hyperbole – an extreme overstatement. In other words, it isn’t literally true.

Most of the things we say we couldn’t care less about, we really could. Maybe I’m so preoccupied I tell my co-workers: “I couldn’t care less where we go for lunch.” Usually, though, there are questions I care even less about: Like, what is the 13 millionth digit of pi?

It follows that neither “couldn’t” nor “could” makes complete sense, in this expression, as a way of saying “I really don’t care”.

Second, what of “I could care less”? Is there a way of looking at it that makes more sense than I first thought?

Yes, there is! We can simply interpret it as sarcasm or irony. As when we say “Yeah, right!” meaning “No way!” or “Not on your life!”

Other commenters argue that “I could care less” is intended as shorthand for “I could care less – but not much!”

Or “I’m capable of caring so much less about this than you think I am. Just watch me!”

Viewed in any of these ways, “I could care less” makes even better sense (it seems to me) than “I couldn’t care less.”

On that basis I’m willing (a bit grudgingly) to accept it.

One caveat: Way back when folks started saying “I could care less” (instead of “couldn’t”), I doubt they gave these subtleties much thought. There was no deliberate “shorthand” or “intended irony”.

But I also believe there’s a kind of group intelligence that evaluates and reacts to such things. Maybe “collective common sense” describes it better?

My point being, if “I could care less” had not made some sort of sense, on some level, I doubt it would have been embraced so readily by the public. People would have instinctively rejected it. Such reactions don’t require conscious thought, but they are (or can be) valid.

In this case, the hive-mind that decides these language things reacted more rationally than I did.

That said – after years of feeling annoyed by “I could care less”, I’m not ready to start saying it myself. I don’t mind if you say it! If I happen to be editing something you write, I may or may not suggest you change it.

But if I do, it will be a suggestion – nothing more. The gods of language have spoken. I accept their verdict!

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


Comments

One Word: Could/Couldn’t — 1 Comment

  1. How is it that two positive words such as yeah and right, when they are said together like “yeah, right!” become negative?

    I know that 2 negative words become positive, 2 positive words remain positive, and one positive word and one negative word become negative , or at least this is how I remember from when I was in high school. Explain it to me, O thou word wizard!

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