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Could Care Less

An excerpt from Bill Walsh’s book Yes, I Could Care Less.

By
Bill Walsh, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #383

If only. Safire and Bernstein are no longer with us, but could care less lives on, in speech and writing, in sticklers’ peeves and spoilsports’ rationalizations. The battle lines are predictable. The not- shy prescriptivist Robert Hartwell Fiske, in his Dictionary of Unendurable English, says, “However it is meant, whatever the speaker’s intention and inflection, the phrase could care less means just the opposite of the one it is so often misused for.” In his Common Errors in English

Usage, Paul Brians says, “People who misuse this phrase are just being careless.”

Bryan A. Garner, in his authoritative Garner’s Modern American Usage, disapproves of the expression but puts it at Stage 3 on his Language- Change Index, halfway between “rejected” and “fully accepted.” That means it’s “commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.”

In Word Court, Barbara Wallraff defends the usage as an informal though illogical idiom but says it’s “not considered appropriate for formal speech or writing.”

Webster’s New World Guide to Current American Usage summarizes the history and concludes that “the efforts of conservative English- speakers are not likely to be successful, for could care less seems too well established to be dislodged now.”

On the let-it-be side of the spectrum, Jan Freeman has plenty of company. John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, like Freeman a self- styled reformed stickler, says that could care less is an idiom and that idioms are inherently illogical. “You may not care for could care less, but I could care less about your objections,” he writes on his blog. “And frankly, apart from the tiny company of peevers, no one else gives a tinker’s damn either.” Freeman, writing in the Boston Globe, elaborates on the idiom notion: “So let’s stash the phrase in the ‘idioms’ bin, along with ‘head over heels’ and ‘have your cake and eat it too,’ and forget about it. Truly, there is nothing more to say.”

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