Couldnʼt Care Less

a cleverly ironic button?

I found a really worthless old piece of writing to post over the weekend (although it may be of interest to former participants in the Andrew spring plays), so I thought we would spend today on what appears to be one of the most popular subjects I undertake from time to time — grammar (and/or usage). This oneʼs primarily grammatical.

We will start with an oldie, although I have begun to feel this particular linguistic abuse is fading, and its heyday may be over. But…

Have you ever heard anyone say, “I could care less” when that individual felt essentially no interest in whatever subject elicited the incorrect remark? And were you aware the statement is, well, wrong?

Consider the sentence: “I could care less.”

First off, with reference to a previous grammatical-correction post of which I was recently reminded by a former student who evidently watches far too many YouTube videos, “less” is indeed correct here because the person is stating a unified quantity of caring (not many carings, I guess). As commercials abusing “less” have grown almost as frequent as ads for prescription drugs that have more side effects than any human should want to endure (and ill effects which are clearly far worse than the ailment the drug is advertised to ameliorate — unintended little effects like bleeding from oneʼs eyes and/or death itself), I suppose I should be glad to encounter a usage of “less” that makes sense.

Click for a good discussion of this problem by someone else.

Unfortunately, the sentence weʼre considering errs well before we arrive at the word “less.” The person means that he or she has reached the nadir of interest (about where Janet has arrived in my now ceaseless rants against stupidly annoying commercials). There is no interest level left for the speaker. And yet: “I could care less.” The very words tell us that the person could care less! There is more uncaring to go: “I could care less.”

She or he should be saying: “I couldnʼt care less.” (I bet you had guessed that already.) Now the statement makes sense. There is no further level of uncaring to discover; this is the ultimate pit of not caring. “I could not care less” (i.e. I donʼt care at all, not one bit, none, nada, nothing whatsoever — perhaps your own level of interest in this subject after the lengths I have just gone to drag it out). That is the literal truth.

And that last sentence literally suggests the one flaw in my position. Perhaps the statement “I could care less” isnʼt meant literally but instead figuratively. A literal statement is objectively true, scientifically valid (like relativity or evolution); it means/denotes what it says. A figurative statement, on the other hand (and “on the other hand” is a figure of speech, folks — itʼs not literally so: there arenʼt any hands here, especially if I happen to be dictating this post), doesnʼt necessarily mean what it actually says; its meaning lies elsewhere, is only suggested or imagined, connoted. I donʼt know what figure of speech or trope (maybe we should study these terms one day) “I could care less” — dryly stating the opposite of what one intends — might be for certain, but it could be a figurative or imaginative way of suggesting the actual situation: “I could not care less.” Hmmm…

And with that, I couldnʼt care less any longer about this problem or the conundrum I just suggested to us all.

A Bonus, Baby!

As a second subject for the day, a little bonus if you wish, note the use of “effects” in the paragraphs above — all correct. With an E the word effect is a noun (a thing of some kind) while the version with an A, affect, is almost always a verb (an action of some kind) — unfortunately not every time, which is possibly the source of the confusion between effect and affect. Effects affect us (noun—verb—direct object). For everyday purposes, itʼs as simple as that: use an E –ffect when you mean a thing (like a side effect) and an A -ffect when you are describing whatʼs happening (“Wakdjunkaga, this tedious analysis is affecting me badly: reading your post has given me a headache.”)

Thatʼs another little bit of confusion that I used to have to correct frequently on studentsʼ papers.

Finally, as a child I was only a mediocre to modestly good speller. It was humiliation as a teacher that got me to learn to spell, which I do pretty well these days. Humiliation is a great stimulant to change and learning (although the education establishment, founded on the self-help, positive-affirmation movement, would shudder to read what I have just said). For my two years in Ft. Madison, I usually wrote on the board “sentance” repeatedly, without demur from the students. I caught it as a hideous goof on my own one evening while correcting papers, hesitating over commenting about a studentʼs sentence fragment (a comment I quickly learned, as my reading-of-student-writing load increased once I moved to the job in Andrew, to abbreviate as: FRAG.), and I actually stopped before writing the usual horrible misspelling and looked the word “sentence” up in the dictionary. I got it right from that moment on and still blush right across my bald pate when I think of the many times I, the trained and pompously self-important educator, had written the wrong spelling over two years. (Maybe education has it right after all — that lesson was self-help.)

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

2 thoughts on “Couldnʼt Care Less

  1. You would like two of Weird Al’s videos. In one he goes to the express lane and changes the sign to 20 items or fewer. He covers over the word less.
    In the next he changes a road sign to ‘caution drive slowly’.

    • Thanks, Dave. I saw the “fewer” one already because that was the point of the former studentʼs comment that I mentioned in this post. Iʼll look for the other.

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