Now, don’t get me wrong. Could care less is hardly the most pressing issue in modern English usage, or even my biggest pet peeve. Yes, I could care less, but I could also care more. (I don’t like to brag, but I’d say my level of caring is precisely where it should be.) Still, the phrase is a handy litmus test: so basic, and yet people get so acidic about it.
In this corner are the sticklers, the prescriptivists. We are the copy editors, English teachers, usage mavens, armchair grammarians and others who revel in dos and don’ts and in our own opinions, who prescribe usage. If you’re a stickler, you deplore the idea of using could care less to mean couldn’t care less. What could be more obvious than a preference for saying what you mean over saying the exact opposite? “One of the surest ways to show the world that you are a slipshod stylist,” writes Charles Harrington Elster in The Accidents of Style, “is to write I could care less instead of I couldn’t care less.”.
In the other corner are the descriptivists who pooh-pooh our fun. Spoilsports. They emphasize that the language is what its speakers make it, and that speakers handle that responsibility just fine. They see the glass as half full, while we’re arguing over whether half full gets a hyphen. They are the linguists and those who have fallen under the linguists’ spell, the laissez-faire realists who take their pleasure in stepping back, hands off, and describing how language is used. Their only strong opinions are about those who have strong opinions. Jan Freeman, a self- described “recovering nitpicker” and former language columnist at the Boston Globe, calls the could care less issue “one of the great language peeves of our time.” Surveying a vast field of sticklers who “continue to insist that ‘I could care less’ really must mean ‘I care to some extent,’” she retorts: “But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.”
Sifting through the claims and counterclaims about how couldn’t care less mutated into its literal opposite and just how wrong or perfectly fine that is, I find it telling just how often people feel the need to explain the literal meanings of the competing versions. Couldn’t care less is oblique. It’s an intentional double negative, as opposed to the ain’t-got-none kind, so processing the meaning requires a couple of seconds’ thought. (Who has time for that?) Complicating matters further if you’re the literal type, the original expression is hyperbolic.