Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Grammatically Speaking, Is It Possible to Care Less?

When I was a young man, my friend Kristen corrected me after hearing me say “I could care less.” I don’t remember the context, but I do remember being slightly mortified but also grateful that it was she who corrected me before I went out into world to embarrass myself again.

The proper phrase, “I couldn’t care less,” has been around for over a hundred years. It simply means, “I have no interest in what you are saying. I could not possibly care any less than I do right now.” Its import is literal. When we utter this phrase, we generally emphasize the contraction couldn’t, which makes sense, since that is the most important word in this utterance.

Now say “I could care less” out loud. You most likely emphasized the word less, not the word could. When we missay “I could care less,” we are literally saying, “Yes, it is possible that I could care less than I do right now.” This means that you actually do care a wee bit. But we really don’t care a wee bit, do we, or any size bit for that matter. Therefore, unless you are trying to be intentionally ironic—which I assure you, you’re not—it is incorrect to say “I could care less.”

If you find it impossible to stop saying “I could care less” because you have missaid it this way for aeons, you might be better off (and closer to what you really mean to say) if you emphasize the word could instead of emphasizing less. By doing so, you leave the listener with a lingering anticipation that there’s more to come. We can represent this as such: “I could care less . . . .” (The ellipsis (“. . .”) represents the lingering anticipation.) If we choose to fill in the blank—to finish the sentence—it may sound something like “I could care less . . . but I really don’t.” Which is really the same thing as “I couldn’t care less.” But, because we’ve missaid the phrase so often, and it’s become part of the American patois, we don’t even have to fill in the blank. Even though it’s wrong, we know exactly what is being said: “I don’t give a shit.”

I have a theory how “I couldn’t care less” has devolved to the troublesome “I could care less.” Although I like some theories that suggest that New Yorkers in the 1960s, influenced by the inflections and irony of Yiddish (such as “I should be so lucky”), had a hand in all this, I think it’s much simpler. We like to garble our words, especially when we are around like-minded individuals, those who share the same patois. It is this garbling that has led me to speculate why this wrong phrasing popped up. Follow me, if you will:

“I could not care less” gets contracted to:
“I couldn’t care less,” which gets garbled to sound like:
“I coulda care less,” which is shortened to:
“I could care less.”

But because that makes no sense, and we like to make sense of things, we switch the stress to

“I could care less.”

Voilà!

So, think before you speak. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that saying “I couldn’t care less” is the appropriate response. It’s direct (remember, it’s literal), and it’s snarky. Say it out loud. “I couldn’t care less.” Or better yet, for extra bitchiness, “I could not have cared any less.”