When I ask other grammar nerds what some of their biggest pet peeves are, “I could care less” consistently tops the list. Both Merriam-Webster and dictionary.com say that in American English, I could care less is acceptable. The Oxford Dictionary for American Usage and Style, however, disagrees. This topic is hotly debated, and I’m here to offer my own slightly entertaining take on it. Once we get to the root of why we started saying this phrase, I hope you’ll also see how beautiful of an idiom “I couldn’t care less” is. Click play, read along below and share this with a friend who might need it.
WHERE DID THIS ORIGINATE?
This phrase first popped up in British English at the turn of the 20th century as a way to say, “It is impossible for me to have less interest or concern in this matter,” or “I am already utterly indifferent.” The phrase is very popular today across the English speaking world. It reached the U.S. in the late 1940s and became popular in the second half of that decade. The controversial variant I could care less was coined in the U.S. and is found only there. It may have begun to be used in the early 1960s, but we see it written first in 1966 (source). Many native English speakers, both in the U.S. and outside of it, find this version to be logically flawed.
If you could not care less, you are at the lowest possible care level. “I could care less” literally means you care somewhere, which is the opposite of not caring at all. And the point of this phrase is to show how little you care.
Correct example: I couldn’t care less who you date as long as you’re happy.
Why? Who you date is of no importance to me, it’s your happiness I care about.
Correct example: “I couldn’t care less about where we eat, just pick a restaurant. I’m starving!” The boyfriend said to the girlfriend.
There is no level of caring lower than the one the boyfriend has for what they eat. He just wants to eat.
If you hear your child say, “I could care less about this stupid math formula!”, they intend to evoke how little they care about the formula, but they’re technically saying they do care to some degree.
SO, WHY THE “COULD CARE LESS” VERSION?
This phrase is an idiom, and idioms — by definition — do not have to make logical sense. For example, let’s take the phrase “head over heels.” Wouldn’t it get the point across of being dizzyingly in love to say “heels over head?” But what I am arguing is “I could care less” — as undoubtedly widespread as it is — is a phrase born from two skeptical theories and only in one part of the English speaking world.
There are two arguments or explanations for why people in the U.S. say I could care less.
Some argue it’s intended to be sarcastic or ironic and therefore shouldn’t be taken literally. Or that you can hear it in their voice. Sort of along the lines of like I care! or tell me about it! I find this argument unlikely when we look at the fact that we already had a perfectly nice idiom. Also, this sarcastic version is hard to convey in writing form, so it just looks like unpolished writing.
Another theory is that along the way we dropped the n’t or the not because, frankly, we got lazy. Could care less is easier to say and write than couldn’t care less. And there are many examples of people using different, easier versions of phrases to the point of their common acceptance. In my opinion, this is what happened in the U.S. We did not make up a new, ironic form of this tenured idiom. We just morphed a really beautiful phrase into something it was never meant to be.
When you’re writing or texting, absolutely stick with “I couldn’t care less.” If you let an “I could care less” slip into casual conversation, others likely don’t know the difference or couldn’t care less. But my goal for this week is to present you with all the evidence to make your own decision about which one to use. I wish I could say I couldn’t care less about which one you choose, but that’d be a lie — wink wink. See y’all next week!
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