May 06, 2013

Grammar Hammer: I Could Care Less

carelessWhen this was suggested for a topic, I hadn’t given much thought about the difference between saying, “I could care less” versus “I couldn’t care less.”

If you tell someone “I could care less,” is that telling them that you don’t have an opinion on the matter, or a self-righteous way of saying you might be able to care less, but can’t be bothered?

How much do we care about things? The outpouring of support for victims of the Boston Marathon bombing means that we care an awful lot about those who were affected. This past week, PR Newswire’s parent company, UBM, organized the Business4Better conference in Anaheim, California, which means that we care a lot about helping connect non-profits with corporations and seeing the tremendous things that can come from the right combination of idea + resource.

Locally, the big topic in my world is the shutdown of the main artery I use to get to work for two weeks while they film the next Captain America movie. How much do I care? Meh, I could care less about the inconvenience I’ll endure for two weeks, but that would take too much energy. However, I couldn’t care less about the inconvenience, provided Captain America himself personally picks me up and transports me safely to work each day.

Telling someone “I could care less” elicits a powerful response as a grammatical peeve, primarily because of its illogical nature. You’re trying to convey that you don’t care at all.  What you are actually saying is that it is possible for you to care less, you’re just not going to put forth the effort. Harvard professor Stephen Pinker argued that the emphasis given to whether you could care less or couldn’t care less would tell the listener whether you were being ironic or sarcastic.

So, is it grammatically incorrect to tell someone you could care less? No, but if that’s something you prefer to say, I couldn’t care less.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

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