I Could Care Fewer

by Dan H

Dan H does another language post.
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So the big news in the linguablogosphere is that Weird Al Yankovic has released a new song entitled Word Crimes in which he goes on about a number of horrible errors people make in English. Like saying “less” when they mean “a smaller quantity” or saying “literally” when they mean “actually.”

It's Weird Al, so it's a nice catchy parody, and I understand that the parody is about seven million times less offensive than Blurred Lines, the song on which it is based. But it's also a song which encourages a very, very unhelpful attitude to language, to language learning, and to the prestige dialect of Standard English.

I thought I'd start off by talking about the song's language advice, and then move on to talk about the arguments that people have been having about it.

You Should Know When It's Less or It's Fewer

The first verse of Word Crimes tells us that we should know when to say “less” or “fewer”. This is very sensible advice.

For example, you should never say “I found Word Crimes to be much fewer offensive than the original Blurred Lines” or “there is fewer water in the glass” or “I hope that you will not think fewer of me.”

Merriam-Webster defines “less” as meaning “constituting a more limited number or amount”. The idea that you should only ever use “less” for non-plural nouns is a recent invention, and not actually supported in regular usage.

Taking a quick look at Google's ngram corpus, we can see that “less of them” is about half as common as “fewer of them.” “Less cars” is about fifteen times less common than “fewer cars” and “less men” is about seven times less common than “fewer men”.

This seems like fairly compelling evidence in favour of the “less for amounts, fewer for numbers” numbers but when you put things the other way around it becomes clear what a real forbidden construction looks like. “Fewer of it” does not appear in Google's ngram corpus at all. “Less water” is more than fifty times more common than “fewer water” (and I suspect most of that comes from “water” being used as the first part of a countable compound noun). “Less money” is about six hundred times more common than “fewer money”.

Not only that, but there are some plural nouns which definitely are more commonly used with “less” than “fewer”. “Less than six hours” is used about twenty times more often than “fewer than six hours”. It seems to be gaining a tiny amount of ground, presumably as the result of people falsely insisting that “fewer than six hours” is somehow more correct.

There are, of course, a narrow range of circumstances in which preserving a less/fewer distinction helps to disambiguate. For example, if I say “there are less interesting articles in the Times Education Supplement this week” I could mean that the number of articles is smaller, or that the articles themselves are less interesting. But this disambiguating function is essentially accidental. After all, if I say “there is less salty water in lakes than in the sea” I could mean that there is less water, or that the water itself is less salty, but the less/fewer distinction is in no way helpful here. Indeed if we were interested solely in avoiding ambiguity, we should reassign “less” to describe only abstract quantities and reserve “fewer” for physical ones. That way we could say “fewer salty water” to mean a smaller amount of salty water and “less salty water” to mean water that is less salty.

That Means You Could Care

The line in Word Crimes that has caused the most controversy (apart from “you write like a spastic” which shocked the hell out of most people on this side of the Atlantic) comes from the first chorus, which opens:

I hate these Word Crimes/Like you could care less/That means you do care/At least a little


A lot of people get really, really angry about the phrase “I could care less”. I'd say that I personally could care less about it but (a) that would be really obvious and (b) it isn't actually true. I actually have a strong preference for “could care less” over “couldn't care less”.

Let's unpack Weird Al's cricticism. “Could care less” is wrong, he tells us, because it means you could care, at least a little. This is the same as the argument made by David Mitchell in this video.

That doesn't make it wrong. Indeed I would argue that it makes it strictly more correct than “couldn't care less”. David Mitchell's complaint is that “could care less” is completely useless as an indication of how much you care but, well, that's also true of “couldn't care less”. David Mitchell and Weird Al would seem to want us to believe that “couldn't care less” is some kind of synonym for “don't care”, which it isn't. And if it was, why use a longer phrase when “I don't care” is perfectly succinct and appropriate.

In fact “I couldn't care less” means only that there exists some level of caring – never defined – less than which you can not care. And it seems to me to be downright disingenuous to claim that you don't care about something when you're making such an effort to insist that your amount of caring is so uniquely and perfectly special as to represent the minimum amount of caring that is humanly possible. That actually feels to me like caring quite a lot. If you told me that Germany had won the World Cup, and I really did not care at all, I would probably say “oh, good for them”. If you tell me that Germany won the World Cup and I reply by saying “really, I couldn't care less who won the World Cup,” that would imply much more investment than an uncaring person would really have.

Besides all that, of course, “I couldn't care less” doesn't mean that you care the smallest amount possible. If that was what you wanted to express, you would need to say “nobody could care less than I do”. A strictly literal reading of “I couldn't care less” is that it not only implies (as “I could care less” may) that you “do care, at least a little”, it implies that you care more than anybody else in the world. Otherwise there would be somebody than whom you cared less. And you've just said you can't.

Of course I don't actually think “I couldn't care less” means anything other than “I care very little” (which by a staggering coincidence is also what “I could care less” means) but it is no more logical, more strictly accurate, or more appropriate to formal discourse than “I could care less.” They're both idioms with set meanings. Indeed they're both idioms with basically the same set meaning. Part of the reason I favour “could care less” over “couldn't care less” is that I am, in fact, quite careful with language and if I want to communicate not caring about something in an offhanded, informal way I would rather use the most dismissive language possible. If I could care less, then not only do I not particularly care, but the amount which I care could actually diminish if, for example, you carried on talking to me. I care very little, and I am caring less and less the more you go on about it.

In a formal context, I would just say “I don't care”. Although actually, of course, in a formal context, I probably wouldn't admit to not caring about anything.

The idea that “I could care less” is some kind of error is simply unsupportable. People clearly know what the words “I”, “could”, “care” and “less” mean. It is possible that people have simply misheard the phrase “I couldn't care less” but this seems improbable. You do get incorrect versions of popular idioms propagated in this manner, but they remain an extremely minority usage and you can see very clearly that they remain a minority usage with a simple ngram search. For example:

All intents and purposes/all intensive purposes.

Defamation of character/deformation of character.

And to compare these graphs with something that clearly is just a regional variation in usage, see:

Took the lift/took the elevator.

The American usage is clearly more common than the British usage, and indeed the gap between “lift” and “elevator” is actually rather large, because there are rather more Americans than Britons. We clearly wouldn't say “lift” is a mistake.

Now compare these two:

Could care less/couldn't care less.

Is “couldn't care less” more common? Certainly. Does that make “could care less” an error, rather than a perfectly valid alternative idiom? Of course not.

For an even clearer look at the big picture, try this. On the basis of which we should really be denouncing both “could care less” and “couldn't care less” as horrible modern Americanisms and insist that everybody go back to using “don't care” like they've been doing perfectly well for the past two centuries. After all, if that's what you mean, that's what you should say.

You Would Not Use It's In This Case

The second verse opens with the observation that you wouldn't use “it's” in the sentence “every dog has its day”. This is perfectly reasonable advice.

Because I'm getting slowly addicted to ngram searches, it might once again be interesting to check how the two different versions of that sentence show up in Google's big box of books.

And here we go.

And this, children, is why it is possible both to know that language has rules, and to understand that those rules are determined by the way that the language is actually used. The phrase “every dog has it's day” (with apostrophe) is not found so much as once in the entire Google ngram corpus. Which is pretty good evidence that it's – what are those things that people on the internet keep telling me I don't believe exist? - oh yes, an error.

I would point out that Weird Al's explanation of the advice is rather lacking. He points out that you don't use “it's” as a possessive, because it's a contraction. But since the rules of standard English make it abundantly clear that you do use an apostrophe for possessives, it might have been nice if Weird Al had pointed out that this is actually a deviation from the standard rules.

I'll come back to this later, but this is broadly why I find the “it's good because it teaches people to use proper English” argument so frustrating.

”Be” “See” “Are” “You”

The second chorus opens by telling us that “be”, “see”, “are” and “you” are “words not letters” and also that we should “never write words using numbers” (which I suppose means we aren't allowed to write “nineteen eighty-four” as “1984”) unless we are seven, or our name is Prince.

I don't have much to say about this except that, again, this is why the song fails as a learning tool (not that it is intended as one, but a depressing number of people seem to intend to use it as one anyway). The last three items on its agenda have been:

A peevish complaint about a perfectly acceptable idiom.
A reasonable example of a genuinely tricky area of punctuation.
A seemingly sincere warning about an entirely nonstandard, utterly informal set of abbreviations which nobody believes to be correct spelling.

There is this myth that people who use text-speak abbreviations do it because they don't know how to spell. This is nonsense. I mean Jesus fucking Christ how much of an arrogant, patronising little prick do you have to be to sincerely believe that the reason people write “bcnu” instead of “be seeing you” is because they are incapable of spelling two and three letter words.

Also: does he object to any and all abbreviations, or just ones that involve using letters that sound like words? That sounds rather arbitrary. And is it okay to use “b” to mean “be” if you aren't using it because it sounds like “be”, but because it's the first letter of the word “be”? Is “brb” okay? Or should we avoid using letters to represent words entirely? In which case I'd better get on my Personal Computer and update my Curriculum Vitae so that it correctly states that in my fourth year at university I specialised in the study of Atomic and Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation Physics.

Always Say “To Whom” Don't Ever Say “To Who”

Verse three opens with the admonition to say “to whom” and not “to who.” This is reasonable as far as it goes, as long as it is taken very, very literally. If you have to ask who somebody is talking to, then “who are you talking to?” and “to whom are you talking?” are both acceptable but “to who are you talking” just seems odd.

That said, I don't see anything particularly wrong with “sit next to whoever you want to”, and I think mostly my issue with “to who” is that it sounds a little bit infelicitous – it seems to come out as “tuhoo” in my accent, like I'm doing a bad impression of an owl. And the line can easily be read as suggesting that you should observe the “who/whom” distinction in all circumstances (particularly given the sloppy and unclear advice given in other verses) and that's just not helpful. I've been hanging out on the comment threads of a few blog posts discussing Word Crimes and it's surprisingly common to see peevers trying to show off their very special brand of perfect English and tripping themselves up with constructions like “whomever laid the rules down in the first place”.

Other features of verse three include the all important “doing good/doing well” distinction. Because that comes up so often in my day-to-day life. Again, were I feeling mischievous I might point out that it is only by convention that “doing well” is taken to mean “succeeding” while “doing good” is taken to mean “performing work of social benefit”. If you really want to wind people up, next time somebody tells you they're doing well, ask them what is functioning particularly effectively about the mechanism by which they “do” and how they are measuring its efficacy.

Then there's the obligatory literal/figurative rant. I've written about this before in some detail and rather than go over the key points again I thought I'd just mean-spiritedly nitpick Weird Al's example and usage.

The literally rant goes:

And I thought that you'd gotten it through your skull/What's figurative and what's literal/Oh but, just now, you said/You literally couldn't get out of bed/That really makes me want to literally/Smack a crowbar upside your stupid head


Even if the literally-peeve was remotely valid (it isn't) this is a spectacularly bad example of its use, and a spectacularly bad counter-example. The video that accompanies the song illustrates “literally couldn't get out of bed” as somebody being held into their bed with ropes and chains. But “I (literally) couldn't get out of bed” doesn't mean “I was prevented from getting out of bed by physical obstacles”. It means “I was unable to get out of bed.” Which is necessarily and literally true of any situation in which you have intended to get out of bed but have failed to do so. It is indeed possible that Weird Al's imaginary interlocutor was prevented from getting out of bed by nothing more than indolence or a desire to lie in for another ten minutes, but since motivation is a key component of success it follows that this imaginary person's laziness really did render them incapable of rising in a timely fashion. It is therefore almost certainly literally true that they couldn't get out of bed.

Weird Al, like most literally-peevers has somehow managed to convince himself that other people don't know what the word “literally” means because he has reached the entirely mistaken conclusion that “literal” means “physical”. This is made abundantly clear in his retort, when he says that he wants to literally smack a crowbar upside somebody's stupid head. He seems to think that this usage is correct because he is using the word “literally” to describe a physical action, albeit one that he is only considering in abstract. But it is not at all clear how Al is using “literally” in this sentence, or what it is supposed to modify.

Does he mean that he wants to literally smack a crowbar upside somebody's head, as opposed to figuratively smacking a crowbar upside somebody's head? What would figuratively smacking a crowbar upside somebody's head even look like? And perhaps more importantly what would it mean to want to figuratively smack a crowbar upside somebody's head, as opposed to wanting to literally do it? That you genuinely do want to do something, but that the thing you want to do is something that could only be described in terms of upside-head crowbar-smacking in a figurative sense?

Is the crowbar-head-smacking desire not in doubt, but the upsideness a question of debate. Could you say “oh well I smacked a crowbar upside his head, but it wasn't literally upside his head. It was more sort of on top of it.”

Or alternatively is the upside-head-crowbar-impact the thing we are supposed to take unmodified and the “smack” the thing we are supposed to consider “literal” (and, therefore, to at least potentially be open to a figurative interpretation).

Or finally is it the upside-head-smack that we take as read and the crowbar that may or may not be metaphorical? Like you might actually be perfectly happy to smack this person upside their stupid head with a newspaper or something, and you'd just be using “a crowbar” to exaggerate your otherwise entirely real desire to strike them with a solid object, and so you use “literally” to clarify that a crowbar is the specific item around which your head-smack-upside language-peeve related violent fantasies revolve.

I think what makes both of these examples so abysmally poor at indicating the difference between “correct” and “incorrect” uses of the word “literally” is that “can” and “want” are both something called “opaque verbs”. As I understand it, an opaque verb is one which can take an indefinite direct object. For example, if I say that I “smacked somebody upside their stupid head with a crowbar”, that sentence is only true if I really did smack a specific person upside their specific stupid head with a specific crowbar. On the other hand, if I say that I “wanted to smack somebody upside the head with a crowbar” then that sentence can be true as long as I have crowbar-head-smacking related wishes, even if they are not directed at any specific person, or any specific crowbar.

Given the opacity of the verb “to want” it is hard to see how it could ever be possible to distinguish “wanting to smack a crowbar upside your stupid head” from “wanting literally to smack a crowbar upside your stupid head”. It isn't like either construction requires you to have actually gone out and bought a crowbar to go head-smacking with. And the question of whether there can be a meaningful distinction between wanting to literally take a physical action but not taking it, and wanting to metaphorically take a physical action and not taking it strikes me as highly philosophically abstract.

Of course the same is true for “can” (which I suspect may be unique in English in that it is clearly a verb but I don't think is has an infinitive – unless it's “to be able to”, but that's surely a phrasal verb which can be conjugated perfectly well on its own). Being able or unable to get out of bed does not hinge on there being a particular bed you can or can't get out of. Saying “I couldn't get out of bed” does not imply the existence of a specific bed covered in chains that physically prevents you from rising. Nor does it imply that this ability or inability is constant throughout time. It only implies an inability at some point to go from the “in bed” state to the “out of bed” state. And again distinguishing between a literal inability and a non-literal or figurative inability seems almost perverse. I mean when I say I can't speak Turkish, I don't mean that my mouth would stop working were I ever to attempt to utter a syllable of the language, I just mean that I have up until this point failed to learn any Turkish and am, therefore, currently unable to speak it. That doesn't mean that I'm using the word “can't” figuratively, just that I am not using the word “can't” to mean “am physically prevented from”.

Belatedly, it occurs to me to wonder if Weird Al wasn't beating on that old horse-corpse as well. This might be a South-East UK thing, but when I was growing up a certain kind of primary school teacher used to be obsessed with the idea that “can't” did indeed have to mean “am physically unable to” and only “may not” meant “did not have permission”. This led to hundreds of exchanges all over the country in which a child would put his or her hand up and say “Miss, can I go to the toilet” and the teacher would reply “I don't know, can you?” To which a tiny part of me would always hope that somebody would respond by pissing on the floor and saying “looks like I can.”

I Hate These Word Crimes

This isn't a complete breakdown of the bizarre mixture of sensible punctuation advice, prescriptivist whinges and really random spelling complaints (yes, some people say “expresso”, get over it) in Word Crimes but it should hopefully give you a decent flavour of the sort of vibe it has. And I should probably reiterate that although I think it's often wrong and sometimes perverse I don't think there's anything wrong with the song as a bouncy collection of language ranting. I mean whining about stuff to catchy tunes is what Weird Al does, and your reaction to his songs depend almost entirely on whether you're annoyed by the same things he's annoyed by.

Except that it's also chock full of really extreme insults. And insulting people who don't speak standard English makes me extremely uncomfortable, because the fetishisation of “proper” English is one of the many ways that we dress racism and classism up as something very sensible and appropriate.

Of course language prejudice is particularly difficult in this regard because it is extremely useful to be able to communicate clearly in the standard dialect for your country (and indeed internationally, if you speak a language that is spoken in more than one country), but there is a massive difference between valuing the ability to communicate clearly in the standard dialect and perpetuating the belief that speaking a non-standard dialect is evidence of moral or intellectual inadequacy.

In this context insisting that people who don't observe the finnicky and pointless distinction between “less” and “fewer” were “raised in a sewer” ('cos it rhymes with fewer, y'see?), or that saying “could care less” makes you a “moron” or that people who communicate using abbreviations you don't like are “dumb mouthbreathers” or, that people who use “literally” to mean something other than “physically” deserve literal death threats (what else, after all, can you call the statement that you want to literally hit somebody in the head with a crowbar) is all sorts of problematic. As is suggesting that somebody who spells badly in their blog “writes like a spastic”. And then following up all of these ableist, classist slurs with the suggestion that these people need to “get out of the gene pool.” An attitude which I believe was popular in nineteenth-century England and mid-twentieth-century Germany.

(And yes, he apologised for saying “spastic”, but that just means that when he said “spastic” he didn't mean “person with cerebral palsy”, just “dumb mouthbreathing drooling moron”).

And to be honest, even this is something I could accept. I try to avoid using ableist or shaming language myself (I do not necessarily always succeed and I fear I sometimes succumb to the lure of a cheap gag) but I don't always absolutely hate everything that has unfortunate implications. And Weird Al has produced some pretty good stuff recently (I really liked First World Problems). I don't mind people defending Word Crimes on the basis that it's a lighthearted song that uses hyperbolic language for comic effect.

But people keep trying to claim that the song is performing a public good by encouraging people to adopt more standard English, thereby improving their life chances.

It is people like me, they claim, who are really the enemies of social equality. By arguing that it is wrong to discriminate against people on the basis of the way they speak we are preventing people from learning to speak “properly”, to their ultimate detriment. And the thing is that there is a very tiny element of validity in this argument – the ability to use Standard English is extremely helpful, and ultimately if you replace your native dialect with Standard English it will probably be to your long term economic benefit. But a big part of the reason that this is true is precisely because of the overwhelming prejudice that still exists against people who have non-standard accents, or who deviate from the wholly imaginary rulesets laid down by self-appointed language “experts”.

There is, indeed, a logic in it. If people are going to be discriminated against because of the way they speak, it would benefit those people to be taught to speak differently. If people are going to be discriminated against because of their religion, it would benefit those people to be taught to abandon their religion. If people are going to be discriminated against for who they fall in love or have sex with, it would benefit those people to be taught to hide their romantic and sexual preferences as effectively as possible. All of these are perfectly effective strategies for surviving in a bigoted, prejudiced society. And ultimately they would benefit society, because pluralism is hard, and it's scary, and everything would be a lot simpler if everybody looked the same, and talked the same, and believed the same things and had the same kinds of relationships.

This argument, the argument I should add that well-intentioned people are genuinely making, and continue to genuinely make for actively discriminating against people who speak non-standard English is that by discriminating against these people we are, ultimately, encouraging them to protect themselves from discrimination. This is a perfectly self-consistent line of reasoning, but it is also fucking Orwellian moon-logic. We do not try to fight homophobic bullying in schools by calling kids faggots so much that they start acting straight. We do not try to fight racism by making people change their names (even though, and let's be clear about this, a guy called Mohammed or a girl called Shonda are going to get fewer interviews and earn less money than a guy called Jack or a girl called Sarah). But for some reason the mere suggestion that maybe we should tolerate multiple dialects in public discourse freaks people the hell out.

“But you're being hypocritical”, they say “because you use Standard English so why don't you want everybody else to have the same benefits you have?”

And yes, I do use Standard English. Because I was born in the South-East of England, and it's my native fucking dialect. And when people tell me that I've made “the effort” to learn to speak “correctly” I look at them with a mixture of disbelief, contempt, and pity. Because the truth is that speaking the way I speak takes me no effort at all. I don't consciously try to say “isn't” instead of “ain't”. I just never grew up saying “ain't”. I say “running” and “swimming” instead of “runnin'” and “swimmin'” because that is the way those words are pronounced in my dialect, not because I like to go the extra mile and pronounce the last letter. And obviously it benefits me greatly that the whole country (indeed the whole Anglophone world) has bought into the idea that people who talk like me have greater moral worth than people who don't. But that doesn't mean that a world where people are shamed into speaking English exactly the same way I speak it is a good one.

Of course there are some things that I have consciously learned. For example I learned that “it's” is the spelling convention for the contractions of “it is” and “it has” but that “its” is the spelling convention for “belonging to it.” And as a teacher I am more than happy to correct my students if they mispunctuate. But funnily enough in all my years in the job, it has never occurred to me that the best way to teach a student the correct punctuation for “its” is to call them a dumb fucking mouthbreather, or to tell them that they write like they have cerebral palsy. Perhaps that's what I've been doing wrong all these years.

Again, this is why I can't take the “it's good because it teaches people to use proper language” argument. Not only are insults a completely shitty way to teach, but the part of Word Crimes dealing with “it's” creates needless confusion. Saying “you can't say “it's” in this case because it's is (it's's?) a conjunction not a possessive” is extraordinarily unhelpful since, following the normal rules of English orthography “it's” absolutely would mean “belonging to it.”

If you wanted to write a humorous song to help people learn the trickier parts of English, that would be a very useful thing to do. You could, for example, have a verse in which you explain that while you use an apostrophe for possession (but not necessarily in a proper name) you do not use it for his, hers, or its. Hi's and her's clearly look silly, and associating “its” with the other two apostrophe-less possessives would – I submit – make it easier for people to actually remember the rule. But the truth is that the majority of internet language pundits aren't interested in helping people learn, they're only interested in telling people they're wrong. It's our pathetic, atavistic need to sort out an order of dominance. As a species, we seem to have a deep seated, culturally reinforced desire to categorise and to rank, to know what the order of things is and what our place is in it. And we gravitate towards systems that put ourselves near the top. Not at the top, of course, we're not merchant bankers. But near the top.

The most heartbreaking thing I have seen in this whole discussion so far is this comment from a woman who claims to love language but who also:

a) Tells her children that they “sound common” when they make “mistakes” and
b) Admits at the end of the post that she's a “paranoid writer”

I have never wanted to reach through my screen and shake somebody more than I did in that moment. Shake in a non-violent way, I stress. Shake in a “seriously, wake up, you are mildly harming yourself and your children” way. Not only is she training her kids to look down on working class people, but she seems to have completely failed to notice the connection between her strong desire to write “correctly” and her seeming inability to write confidently.

And let's be honest, in this world of Me Incorporated and Faking It 'Til You Make It, isn't it confidence that wins out in the end? When people nitpick other people's language they don't do it to help those people communicate more effectively – those people were communicating just fine, thanks (sorry, that should of course be “communicating just finely, thank you”). They do it to boost their own self-esteem at the expense of other people.

If we really want to give people from all backgrounds the ability to use Standard English with confidence then the first thing we have to do is stop teaching them that language is like some kind of 1980s platform game – something deliberately designed to trip you up and make you look stupid. We need to remember that making mistakes is normal, that some people will make more mistakes than others, and that because English is actually a stupid fucking language, there are some features of the language which are legitimately hard to get to grips with.

We also need to remember that helping people to learn is something that takes a well-developed, respectful relationship. In my day-to-day life, I correct people's language all the time, because I am a teacher in an international school, and both my students and my non-native-speaking colleagues want to learn how to improve their English. In the case of my students, correcting their English is literally what I am paid to do, and I like to think that I do it in a way which feels safe and supportive. I don't correct people's English in the street, or online, because that is a completely different context. Coming up to a complete stranger and saying “hey, I heard you say 'I forgot it at home' but we don't usually say that in English” would make me a complete douchebag (interestingly I was recently told by a colleague that “I forgot it at home” is perfectly acceptable in South African English, and I do try to qualify my recommendations by dialect as much as I can).

The more “helpful” language “experts” try to improve the language of people of whom they have no knowledge, and with whom they have no prior relationship, the more these people will learn that speaking English means inviting other people to judge them. Even if they do manage to internalise a few of the rules of standard English (and even if some of these rules are actually true – many of the “mistakes” that get corrected online are nothing of the sort) they will be so miserably beaten down that they will be unable to express themselves confidently. And it is confidence, more than anything else, that matters.

As an illustration, I would draw your attention to this interview between Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman. Watch it (I mean, watch it if you like – I'm just a guy on the internet, it's not like I can tell you what to do) and ask yourself: Whose English is most standard? Who is using English best? Who is making the most mistakes? Who is using the most slang?

Listen to it again (or, if you prefer, listen to it for the first time because you've read this paragraph without watching the video in between). And if it helps, check out this transcript of the interview.

I don't want this to be a “gotcha” but I suspect that most people noticed things like the fact that Brand quite often says “'e” instead of “he” and sometimes uses “like” as a filler. He sometimes stops mid-sentence and rephrases, but then he also says far more than Paxman, and certainly uses a wider vocabulary.

You might have missed some of the more unusual language choices Paxman makes. At 00:43, when Brand talks about alternative political systems, Paxman's prompt is “They being?” Now I am willing to accept that this might be adhering to some obscure and terribly clever rule of “proper English” which I – being a shade closer to Mr Brand's background than Mr Parkinson's – have no access to, but I am pretty damned sure that either “those being” or “and they are” would be more standard. He could be following the same structure which makes some people favour “it is I” over “it's me”, but I don't think I've ever seen that structure used with a non-finite verb. So I rather suspect that old Jezzer just got mixed up between saying “Those being” and “they are” which led to the infelicitous “they being.” But since Jeremy Paxman is a posh newsreader man in a suit, we let it pass. Hell, I noticed it and despite being a loud opinionated internet dude, I didn't quite have the confidence to just up and say “Jeremy Paxman made a mistake.” And even if I'm wrong and it's perfectly grammatical because something something gerund something, you can be damned certain that if Russell Brand had said it I wouldn't have doubted for a second that he'd just made an error. Because he's common.

Similarly around 1:12, Paxman observes that Brand “can't even be arsed to vote”. The transcript rather coyly records this as “can't even be asked” - either because it was transcribed by somebody not familiar with the British English idiom “can't be arsed” meaning “can't be bothered” (or to stretch a point “could care less”) or because the transcriber couldn't imagine that Jeremy Paxman would say a taboo word. So we now have a situation in which one man is saying “can't be arsed” while the other is talking about “hierarchical systems preserved across generations” and pointing out that his interlocutor is operating within a “narrow prescriptive parameter”. And yet somehow it is Mr Can't-Be-Arsed who comes across as having the better command of “standard” English.

Of course while I'm currently arguing that Russell Brand's English is at least as standard as Paxman's, and that we are fooled into thinking that it isn't by our class-based preconceptions, you could also make exactly the opposite argument. Perhaps Russell Brand isn't speaking Standard English at all, perhaps he's speaking a flawless Thurrock dialect. Because of course linguistic prejudice goes two ways – not only do we assume that people who have deprecated accents can't be speaking standard English, we also assume that standard English is the only dialect that is capable of expressing complicated ideas. Now as a Southerner I'm not that good with regional English dialects, but I'm pretty sure that the way you say “hierarchical systems preserved across generations” in basically any English dialect is “hierarchical systems preserved across generations.”

And this is perhaps the greatest reason that I am sceptical about the notion that it is absolutely necessary for everybody to learn to speak standard English (I am beyond sceptical about the idea that the best way to teach people standard English is to make them ashamed of their native dialect). We assume that any use of English which is skilled, eloquent, and engages with complex ideas is automatically “standard” when really there is no reason to to assume it is anything of the sort. When you're being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman you don't say “I could care less”, but nor do you say “I couldn't care less,” you say “But it’s not that I’m not voting out of apathy. I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations now and which has now reached fever pitch where you have a disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent underclass that are not being represented by that political system, so voting for it is tacit complicity with that system”.

Forget Word Crimes, forget fewer and whom and espresso. That is how you fucking well express yourself in English.
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Comments (go to latest)
Michal at 02:17 on 2014-07-31
*Points out the 's in a possessive is in fact a contraction of the Old English ending "es."*
Chris A at 07:12 on 2014-07-31
I agree with your conclusions, though I'm uncertain what you're saying at a couple points. Possibly because it's late, I've been reading all day, and my brain is mush.

You compare dialect-bullying to calling a kid "faggot," but I'm left wondering whether the relationship between Standard English and a dialectical or colloquial variant isn't inherently hierarchical in a way that the relationship between heterosexuality and homosexuality is not. Can we disentangle racist and classist ways of denigrating non-standard English from the existence of a form of the language regarded as "standard" in the first place? If not, what does dialect-equality look like? And what is the connection between denigrating dialectical variation and the kind of largely non-dialect-related peevery you go after in the Weird Al-related sections of your article?

Also - and please feel free to stop reading now if you're not in the mood for linguistic pedantry - I am awful and can't stop myself from picking a few linguistic nits, irony be damned.

"Couldn't care less" conforms to a syntactic pattern that can be paralleled endlessly in familiar constructions (e.g. "couldn't be happier") and improvised on intelligibly. "Could care less" belongs to an extremely short list of colloquial expressions whose meanings don't change when they're negated (e.g. "to know/not to know jack shit"). If we construct virtually any other expression using identical syntax ("could be less happy"), we lose the sense of the idiom. That doesn't mean "could care less" isn't a perfectly recognizable idiom, but it does mean that its meaning is irregular and conventional in a way that the meaning of "couldn't care less" is not.

I suspect your objection to "to who" is not actually phonetic, and that you wouldn't say "from who" either. When the relative pronoun directly follows a preposition, native speakers still employ its inflected version almost universally. It's about the only place in the modern language where "whom" isn't on its way out.

"Can" isn't quite a verb. At least not technically. It's a modal auxiliary, like "should", "would," "must," and so forth. None of them have infinitive forms (or participles, for that matter) in English.

I think most "literal" police are not so much hung up on an erroneous physical interpretation of the word - though I agree the image of a bed with chains on it makes that mistake - as they are irritated by the use of the word as an intensifier in conspicuously figurative contexts. For example, "I literally jumped" is unlikely to raise any eyebrows whether I physically jumped or not, but "I literally jumped out of my skin" might get me a funny look. Personally, I tend to chalk counterintuitive use of the word up to hyperbole. Which is allowed, of course!
Shim at 11:39 on 2014-07-31
I'm baffled by this:

A strictly literal reading of “I couldn't care less” is that it not only implies that you “do care, at least a little”, it implies that you care more than anybody else in the world. Otherwise there would be somebody than whom you cared less. And you've just said you can't.

Following that argument, "I couldn't eat less" implies that you eat more than anybody else in the world, "I couldn't weigh less" implies that you are heavier than anyone else, and "I couldn't do less" means you are the busiest person on Earth. I don't see any of those. Also, your reading would imply that the converse, "I couldn't eat more," means you haven't eaten anything. All of these forms read to me as "I X the minimum amount". It's not possible to decrease your Xing, and therefore the logical implication is that your Xing is already minimal.

If you said "I couldn't eat less than Pete" then logically you must eat more than Pete, but the comparator is required for that meaning. Otherwise (I think this is what's going on, anyway) the implicit comparator is the status quo: "I couldn't care less (than I do)", with the most obvious explanation being that you already don't care at all.

I do think there are distinctions in the "could/couldn't care less" connotations, though I'm not sure anyone pays them much attention. The second is the most straightforward to me; "I could care less" carries a kind of offhand dismissiveness, with a sense that yes, I could care less, but that should in no way be taken to assume that I care to any significant extent, so please leave off.


Re: standardisation...

Basically yes, historically a lot of (what we think of as) complex concepts first arise in Standard X and are mostly discussed by Standard X speakers, so what happens is that the terms and expressions they use become the approved terminology. This means that, for example, I can't really meaningfully write an essay about sociolinguistics in Broad Scouse, because a) English isn't very phonetic so doesn't support dialect writing very well; b) academic discourse has a lot of patterns that constrain writing in ways that mask a lot of dialect features, including third-person and passive writing; c) there are not distinctively Scouse terms for virtually any of the words that would appear.

There are some exceptions here. Farming is really complicated, and so historically huge amounts of farming terminology is dialectal, and in some cases regional. Things like the James Herriot stories highlight some of these, where the farmers quite happily use traditional Yorkshire terminology to describe animals and ailments, which he mentally translates back and forth into veterinary terms. Sailing is probably the same. Early industry came with a lot of grassroots terminology used by earlier cottage industries, some of which has become standard or evolved new meanings in standard English. I don't know about the general socioeconomic background of tech boom people, but the same thing may have happened or be happening there.
Adrienne at 11:53 on 2014-07-31
Chris A:

...but I'm left wondering whether the relationship between Standard English and a dialectical or colloquial variant isn't inherently hierarchical in a way that the relationship between heterosexuality and homosexuality is not. Can we disentangle racist and classist ways of denigrating non-standard English from the existence of a form of the language regarded as "standard" in the first place? If not, what does dialect-equality look like?


I think perhaps it's the word 'Standard' in 'Standard English' that's throwing you off here? (To be fair, it throws a lot of people off.) My answer is, no, of course it's not any more "inherently hierarchical" than other sorts of differences between people and their artifacts; what seems essential is actually upheld by various power relations, both current and historical.

Perhaps taking it out of the context of English makes it easier to see? Which is the 'standard', Church Latin or Classical Latin? What about Classical Arabic versus Egyptian Arabic versus Levantine Arabic versus the other forty or fifty widely spoken current and historical Arabics, many of which are only barely mutually intelligible? Which one is the "real" or "standard" version? Is Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur'an, the "standard" even though it has literally no living speakers? (Plenty of living readers! But basically no one actually speaks it, even in formal settings.)

Honestly I think in the case of 'Standard English', we're not even well-served by thinking of it as a dialect, because it's not really. (The UK version of Standard English is definitely different from Standard American English, so at a minimum we have to talk about multiple "dialects" that people call "Standard".) We can more usefully think of 'Standard English' as a register -- one which is more formal than the main speech registers of many dialects. One major bonus of realizing that SAE and Queen's English are registers is that it becomes easier to teach children (and adults) how to speak and write them without, in the process, insinuating that their own dialects are "bad" or "wrong" somehow, because of course that's bullshit.
Adrienne at 11:54 on 2014-07-31
Dan H: I also wanted to express my profound appreciation for the phrase "fucking Orwellian moon-logic", which seems to me to be widely applicable to my life and I plan to abscond with it. :)
Janne Kirjasniemi at 12:09 on 2014-07-31
If you said "I couldn't eat less than Pete" then logically you must eat more than Pete, but the comparator is required for that meaning. Otherwise (I think this is what's going on, anyway) the implicit comparator is the status quo: "I couldn't care less (than I do)", with the most obvious explanation being that you already don't care at all.


Another angle would be that the sentence: "I couldn't care less" could be strictly referring only to the capability of caring and not at all to the amount of it, leaving the measure of caring ambigious, if we infer(is that how you use that word? I do get confused with it, but like to use it. Oh well.) sentiment differently. So two discussions:

"Could you please stop watching that Farscape marathon and sleep. You shouldn't fixate on things like that!"
"But I couldn't care less(even if I wanted to)!"

and

"Hey, stop littering! The environment is everyone's concern!"
"I couldn't care less(since I am already at the lowest possible point)!"

Now obviously the second one sounds, at least to me, more natural, but nothing in the expression necessitates that interpretation, rather the idiom is defined by its use. And really all the efforts to find a single logical interpretation is bound to be inconclusive, since the in the end the meaning comes from the usage and not any logical grammatical necessity.

This proper english thing is very interesting to me, since we just don't really do that to a similar degree with my language, but there are definitely some classist tendencies. I imagine the French could be quite enthusiastic about such wrangling, but interestingly in France, the proper french of the Académie is also a result of a deliberate, centuries long project of centralization at the expence of the other dialects and for example the occitan language. A similar thing is with how what we(foreigners) think of as spanish is actually castilian. Or how in Brazil they talk brazilian, but write portuguese. And so on and so forth.

Dan H at 13:10 on 2014-07-31
@Michal

*Points out the 's in a possessive is in fact a contraction of the Old English ending "es."*


Indeed.

Even more interestingly "it's" was considered quite correct for a very long time, until people started propagating the folk etymology that the possessive 's was a contraction of "his" (that is "David's" was not a contraction of "Davides" but "David his") and that therefore "it's" should be properly rendered as "its" because one would not say "it his".

I'd also point out that the fact that an apostrophe can be used for contractions, combined with the fact that the plural "potatoes" can be spelled with an e makes "potato's" one hundred percent formally correct.

@Chris A

I agree with your conclusions, though I'm uncertain what you're saying at a couple points. Possibly because it's late, I've been reading all day, and my brain is mush.


My brain was pretty much mush when I wrote this as well - I've been sleeping badly recently, so I may not have been as coherent as I might have been.

Can we disentangle racist and classist ways of denigrating non-standard English from the existence of a form of the language regarded as "standard" in the first place?


Absolutely we can. After all, it isn't like shops who sell three-pin converters for people who come from countries where there's a different standard for delivering electricity actively look down on their customers. Indeed in most cases it's people who *use* the standard who are seen as lazy and shiftless, not people who don't use it. Nobody thinks that people only use Unix because they aren't educated enough to use Windows.

Just off the top of my head, here are some ways we can keep a "standard" dialect without denigrating non-standard usages:

Firstly and most importantly, there should be a strong emphasis on *register*. There is a world of difference between teaching people that a usage is *informal* and teaching them that it is *wrong*. "Could care less" is not an error. Neither is saying "ain't" instead of "isn't". Neither are appropriate in a job interview (although truthfully it depends on the sort of job).

Secondly (and only *slightly* less importantly) we need to massively increase the social prestige of being conversant with other dialects. Currently we have a situation where it is considered actively prestigious to be ignorant of non-standard usages, such that people actively *overstate* their inability to understand non-standard use of language.

As our society currently stands, if I say that a particular rule is more honoured in the breach than in the observance, and you don't understand what I mean, you feel ashamed of your ignorance, but if you say you could care less and I fail to understand that you are indicating a small, rather than large, level of caring, you still feel ashamed because you have failed to speak as I expect you to.

Under the current system, we maintain the perverse belief that *ignorance* is a mark of *education*. In a world free from language discrimination, a person who thinks that "I didn't do nothing" means "I did do something" would be seen as an ignoramus. Currently they are seen as a champion of literacy.

And what is the connection between denigrating dialectical variation and the kind of largely non-dialect-related peevery you go after in the Weird Al-related sections of your article?


They're connected by the belief that there is one single, right way to speak English, and that this is defined as a very narrow version of formal, standard English, and that people who fail to abide by this arbitrary standard are inferior.

"Couldn't care less" conforms to a syntactic pattern that can be paralleled endlessly in familiar constructions (e.g. "couldn't be happier") and improvised on intelligibly.


I actually don't think that's strictly true. I would argue that both conform to syntactic patterns that are relatively common in familiar constructions. It's just that "could"-style constructions tend to have greater flexibility than "couldn't"-style constructions.

Take, for example, "that could have been worse". By David Mitchell's argument, this is a completely useless description of how bad something is, but it's actually a perfectly clear and idiomatic way to describe something which probably wasn't great. A lot of its meaning comes from tone and emphasis, and it can mean a number of things ranging from "that was quite good but nothing to really write home about" to "that was pretty terrible".

I think it's probably true that negative comparisons are strictly less flexible. "I've never seen a bigger boat" clearly implies that the boat is the biggest boat you've ever seen, while "I've seen bigger boats" could imply that the boat is small or that the boat is large but not the largest you've seen.

I think most "literal" police are not so much hung up on an erroneous physical interpretation of the word - though I agree the image of a bed with chains on it makes that mistake - as they are irritated by the use of the word as an intensifier in conspicuously figurative contexts.


I think that's sort of true and sort of not. Or more precisely, I think "literally" peevers make two key mistakes, the first being to assume that the use of "literally" as an intensifier means that you are using it to "mean" figuratively, when you are obviously using it to mean precisely the opposite, and the second being the assumption that the "literal" meaning of a word is necessarily the physical one.

Weird Al's assumption that "literally couldn't get out of bed" must mean "am physically tied to the bed" is a clear example of this error. I would argue that the common objections to "literally exploded" are similar. The verb "to explode" has a number of related and - I would argue - entirely literal meanings related to rapid increase. There is no reason to assume that "my boss literally exploded at me" has to mean "my boss literally chemically combusted" or "my boss was literally torn apart from the inside by internal forces".

Indeed if we're being hyper-literal and engaging in argument from etymology, the "my boss exploded" usage is actually the *most* literal one since "to explode" "literally" means "to drive off by making noise". It is, ironically, the usage that refers to detonation that is actually figurative.
Dan H at 14:03 on 2014-07-31
@Shimmin

Following that argument, "I couldn't eat less" implies that you eat more than anybody else in the world, "I couldn't weigh less" implies that you are heavier than anyone else, and "I couldn't do less" means you are the busiest person on Earth. I don't see any of those.


And neither, of course, do I. But then I'm not the sort of person who insists that any phrase that requires part of its meaning to be inferred from context is an error perpetrated only by mouth-breathing morons.

Umm ... not that you are either, I'm just contextualizing.

Essentially I'm just attempting to apply the same hyperliteralist deliberate misreading that peevers consistently apply to ordinary uses of language to the type of language that these people recommend.

Without inference, "I couldn't care less" is informationally incomplete, because it doesn't say what you can care less *than*. The phrase is understandable only because of the tacit convention that "I couldn't care less" is understood to mean "I couldn't care less (than I do currently, because the amount I currently care is the minimum)."

If we *rule out* inference and insist that phrases must derive their meanings purely from the literal meanings of the words that they contain and, furthermore, apply the kind of bloody-minded logic that insists that any deprecated usage must *clearly* mean the most absurd or contradictory thing it can possibly be mangled into implying (the kind of logic that insists "I feel badly" must mean "the mechanism by which I feel is inadequate"), we arrive at the situation where the "grammatically correct" interpretation of "I couldn't care less" is as "I couldn't care less (than anything else cares)". This is clearly nonsense, just like it is clearly nonsense to assume that "I literally couldn't get out of bed" is supposed to mean "I was prevented from getting out of bed by physical obstacles."

A less absurd "correct" reading is the one Janne offers below, which is that "I couldn't care less" even if parsed in the traditional sense of "I couldn't care less (than I currently care)" it still does not mean that you care the minimum amount, or that you do not care. It implies only that you are incapable of caring less than you currently do, while providing no information about how much you currently care.

Indeed, here equivalent constructions are strongly on the side of the relative rather than absolute interpretation. "I couldn't eat any more" certainly doesn't mean "I have eaten as much as any human being can eat" only "I have eaten as much as I personally can eat", which may not be very much at all.

And this strikes me as fairly strong evidence that the conventional meaning of "couldn't care less" (implying a specific, low level of caring) comes purely from its status as a set phrase and has nothing to do with what the phrase actually means.

Basically yes, historically a lot of (what we think of as) complex concepts first arise in Standard X and are mostly discussed by Standard X speakers, so what happens is that the terms and expressions they use become the approved terminology. This means that, for example, I can't really meaningfully write an essay about sociolinguistics in Broad Scouse, because a) English isn't very phonetic so doesn't support dialect writing very well; b) academic discourse has a lot of patterns that constrain writing in ways that mask a lot of dialect features, including third-person and passive writing; c) there are not distinctively Scouse terms for virtually any of the words that would appear.


I think that's pretty much right. But I'd point out that what you seem to be saying here isn't so much that you couldn't write an essay about sociolinguistics in broad Scouse but rather that an essay about sociolinguistics written in broad Scouse would be functionally indistinguishable from one written in Standard English.

This strikes me as having profound implications for the unchallenged assumption that the ability to communicate in "Standard English" is a necessary component of high-level discourse. If there are no distinctively dialect terms for highly technical concepts and the structure of formal discourse would necessarily mask the distinctive features of most dialects anyway, it strikes me that training people to stop using their native dialects, quite aside from the cultural and ethical implications, is a colossal waste of time and energy.

The idea that it is necessary to learn to say "if it were" rather than "if it was" before you can go on to learn to apply technical terminology in a precise manner is patently absurd.
Tamara at 15:19 on 2014-07-31
"Its" is appalling. I used wrong for a very long time. It still looks wrong to me not to have an apostrophe there.

It's (sigh) not just a function of wrong/right. I'd go so far as to argue that using highly "proper" language in a text message, random facebook post or whatever is as "wrong" as writing an academic article in text speak and smileys. A relatively low level of correctness is an expected part of those particular fora, and an over-scrupulous adherence to things like who/whom changes the tone of the thing. A text message that used "whom" would likely have some weird parodic edge to it, to my ear, that I would have to assume the author intended (or is an idiot.) Just using "who" - however grammatically incorrect - would probably sound more neutral.

The song does redeem itself with the choice to use Windows...is that 95? 98? Brilliant.
Dan H at 15:52 on 2014-07-31
"Its" is appalling. I used wrong for a very long time. It still looks wrong to me not to have an apostrophe there.


Ah, well you see the problem is that people didn't call you a dumb mouthbreather often enough.

In all seriousness, though I'm actually rather impressed that you admitted that. Even people who aren't shrieking pedants and "grammar" snobs tend to shy away from admitting they ever have real difficulty with the intricacies of formal English.

Of course these things are, in fact, really annoying and people do get them wrong (I sometimes trip up over "it's" as an abbreviation for "it has" because back when I was being told to rote-memorize my shibboleths I was always taught that "its means belonging to it, and it's means it is"). And the correct way to stop people getting them wrong is to explain things to them politely in a safe and non-threatening environment.

It's (sigh) not just a function of wrong/right. I'd go so far as to argue that using highly "proper" language in a text message, random facebook post or whatever is as "wrong" as writing an academic article in text speak and smileys.


I'd be inclined to agree. Hell, even in comparatively formal situations I find that an excessive focus on the supposed rules of formal English makes you look massively intellectually insecure, particularly when they're informally applied.

There's a bit in Fifty Shades of Grey when Anastasia Steele actually says "whom am I kidding." This is, quite simply, wrong. Yes, you could argue that technically "I" is the subject of the sentence and the nameless "who" is not, and that therefore "whom am I kidding" is the way it should be rendered, but this ignores the fact that "who am I kidding" is thoroughly informal and idiomatic and trying to shoehorn it into your primary school notions of "proper" English is like putting a horse in a dress and sending it to Ascot.

Although thinking about it, it would be kind of cool to have a language blog called "Grammar Busters" and to make the tagline "Whom you gonna call?"
Shim at 16:12 on 2014-07-31
Sorry, I was not very coherent there. I didn't originally mean to argue that "I couldn't care less" logically means you care less than anyone else in existence, although that's where I seem to have ended up. Janne has it nailed. It means only that it is not possible for the amount you care to be decreased, you are at your minimum. The limiting factor is not defined.

Hmm.

Being a proper Internet Pedant for a minute, I'm going to disagree with myself. The above is a "reasonable" (FAGVO) argument for "I can't care less". "I couldn't care less" taken at face value means either that:
a) at some time in the past, it was not possible for you to care any less than you did, due to some limiting factor;
or b) it would not be possible for you to care less than you do, even hypothetically, therefore your caring must be at some absolute minimum threshold.

But neither of these is the point I was trying to make, which is to disagree with Dan (because that's how I roll). Regardless which of these you take, I can't see any way to get the "I couldn't care less than absolutely everything else" meaning you're suggesting; I just don't see which part of the sentence you're drawing the latter part from. I dunno, maybe I'm just dim. Am I alone here?

I'd point out that what you seem to be saying here isn't so much that you couldn't write an essay about sociolinguistics in broad Scouse but rather that an essay about sociolinguistics written in broad Scouse would be functionally indistinguishable from one written in Standard English.

Yes, exactly. Sorry, that was what "meaningfully" was supposed to get across, but apparently not. I mean, there's maybe the odd past tense/participle that would be different, but that's about it.

Writing is a slightly odd fish anyway, but... basically, I think if you ended up having a detailed conversation about most academic topics in dialect X, which was sufficiently dialect-y (or rather, sufficiently nonstandard other than in accent) for that to be distinct and meaningful, it would probably no longer seem like an academic discussion. Once you replace a certain amount of technical jargon with conversational-register terms and phrasings, it would start to sound like just a conversation, though a fairly deep and clever one.

Hmm again. Another thought, I think one way of looking at Standard English is that it's a particular dialect/sociolect with a particularly strong affiliation for jargon. This means that even though most technical jargon is essentially omnidialectal, it seems naturally to fit into SE and things written in jargon feel like SE, whereas mixed in with obvious features of other dialects it tends to feel strange. Basically just habit from where we usually encounter it, I imagine.

Sorry, it's really late here so I'm rambling because I can't sleep.

This strikes me as having profound implications for the unchallenged assumption that the ability to communicate in "Standard English" is a necessary component of high-level discourse. If there are no distinctively dialect terms for highly technical concepts and the structure of formal discourse would necessarily mask the distinctive features of most dialects anyway, it strikes me that training people to stop using their native dialects, quite aside from the cultural and ethical implications, is a colossal waste of time and energy.

Agreed entirely.
Dan H at 16:39 on 2014-07-31
But neither of these is the point I was trying to make, which is to disagree with Dan (because that's how I roll). Regardless which of these you take, I can't see any way to get the "I couldn't care less than absolutely everything else" meaning you're suggesting; I just don't see which part of the sentence you're drawing the latter part from. I dunno, maybe I'm just dim. Am I alone here?


Oh I'm absolutely not suggesting that "I couldn't care less (than absolutely anyone or anything else)" is in any way implied by "I couldn't care less". But remember we're not in the world of the sensible people, we're in the world of Proper English, where the way people actually use language takes a back seat to arbitrary rules people make up in their heads.

My reasoning for insisting that "couldn't care less" has to mean "care the most" is that great passion of the Proper English Campaign, logic. Since English works basically like mathematics (that's why "didn't do nothing" means "did something") it follows that "I couldn't care less" should be taken as a strictly formal mathematical statement.

We will assign, therefore, a value to your level of caring. Let us call it C. "I couldn't care less" is equivalent to the inequality C !< X where X is some undefined level of caring. Since X is undefined, it follows that it is unbounded. Since no limitations to the statement C !< X are stated, they cannot be assumed to exist. For the statement "I couldn't care less" to be true, the inequality C !< X must be true over all X. It follows that C is infinite.

You may infer, if you wish, that I am not being entirely serious.

Hmm again. Another thought, I think one way of looking at Standard English is that it's a particular dialect/sociolect with a particularly strong affiliation for jargon.


Which is ironic, since the Language Police also hate jargon with a passion.
Shim at 22:04 on 2014-07-31
"I couldn't care less" is equivalent to the inequality C !< X where X is some undefined level of caring... It follows that C is infinite.

Slackjaw.gif

Which is ironic, since the Language Police also hate jargon with a passion.
That is pleasing - they don't realise it's under their noses all along.
Dan H at 22:55 on 2014-07-31
Slackjaw.gif


It is, I admit, absurd, confusing and difficult to follow. All the things that Proper English should be.

I was inspired by a post on another thread in which somebody asked the question: "Look at it this way, who cares less, somebody who can care less, or somebody who can't care less." To which the answer seemed fairly transparently to be "the one who can care less". The person who is capable of doing something is clearly the one who does it.

That is pleasing - they don't realise it's under their noses all along.


Although thinking about it, one might equally well argue that jargon and technical language exist *outside* Standard English. The word "power", for example, has a whole host of meanings in Standard English, but exactly one meaning in Physics.

If my students tried to use Standard English in their exams, they'd come unstuck very quickly.
Tamara at 23:37 on 2014-07-31
In all seriousness, though I'm actually rather impressed that you admitted that. Even people who aren't shrieking pedants and "grammar" snobs tend to shy away from admitting they ever have real difficulty with the intricacies of formal English.

Huh. I guess it's because English isn't actually my first (or even, by some apparent definitions, my second) language. Which goes to my point that the places where I'm usually aware of the inadequacies of my English, of it not really being fluent, confident, you know, just effortlessly *right* - are exactly not the formal ones, but the slang, colloquialism, regionalisms and so on. My formal language isn't that great per se either - I can hardly follow the debate about could/couldn't - but I actually don't notice it that much. I'm fairly confident that any written work I produce, at any level of formality, is going to be essentially fine. Conversations though...yeah, I'm never entirely sure if I used a word like, off the top of my head, "quid" correctly. Not in its exact dictionary definition, but in the actual meaning I want to get across - is it too informal for the setting? Are there class connotations? etc. I haven't the foggiest.

So, yeah, this attempt to wipe out actual used language is just absurd. These supposed grammar pedants might like to think that when they hear, for example, a bunch of teenagers talking in 'incorrect,' day-to-day language, and one speaking with perfect, precise grammar they'll find the former are lazy and stupid and the latter clever and proper - but what the actual situation would be, and what anyone would actually think, is that one is simply not a 100% fluent English speaker.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 01:40 on 2014-08-01
I have noticed that slang, colloquialisms etc. can be (for me) very difficult to parse (as is the kind of shorthand, or even just typos/spelling errors/mispronounciations that people make in conversation or one the internet)

IE: Me, as someone who has learned english formally and via the American Media Empire, the colloquialisms (or even simple errors that a native speaker would be easily able to parse) can easily throw me off.

I'm reminded of a certain poster on a certain board whose spelling was atrocious, typos everywhere. For most native english-speakers that seemed to just be an annoyance: They'd still parse what he meant perfectly, for me it was much harder and it took quite a bit of time before I could learn to distinguish the typos from the obscure meanings.
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 01:43 on 2014-08-01
" "didn't do nothing" means "did something""

My particular dialect of swedish is famous for piling negations onto each other (and they do tend to work like in maths) (well, it's not just piling negations but also a tendency towards understatement)

We can literally say something "Well, this wasn't ungood." (it means it was good)
http://arilou-skiff.livejournal.com/ at 01:48 on 2014-08-01
""Its" is appalling. I used wrong for a very long time. It still looks wrong to me not to have an apostrophe there. "

I have the same issue. I know it technically but I haven't got it into my backbone yet, so I still have a tendency to get "its" wrong (apostrophes in general in fact)

http://foghawk.livejournal.com/ at 02:18 on 2014-08-01
Your 'literal' interpretation of "couldn't care less" was extremely difficult to follow. Even if we are playing at following the Rules of Logic rather than actual language use, you've interpreted the referent of the "less" in multiple ways (first as 'less than some unspecified specific amount', then as 'less than all conceivable amounts') and not mentioned when you were switching between them, with the result that your "strictly literal" reading was made almost unreadable by, er, the vagueness of the English language.

Frankly, I do think that "couldn't care less" makes logical sense and "could care less" does not. As you've said, the only reasonable interpretation is "couldn't care less [than the amount I actually care]", which assumes (as natural language does) that 'missing' information is implicit in the sentence/context. The "minimum amount of humanly possible caring" is, you know, zero. (I don't think the 'I can't personally care less' interpretation applies: The "couldn't" rather than "can't" makes it a hypothetical; everybody can care zero in some context, and frequently does. The "couldn't" in "couldn't eat any more" is not a true hypothetical, but for politeness, which isn't really comparable.) I guess if you want to you can claim that you can negative care about something, presumably with an opinion in the opposite direction, but that's silly. People don't discuss feelings or investment in that way. Therefore, if you don't care at all, then you say you couldn't care less, because it's impossible to care less than zero. "Could care less" is a useless indicator, because caring has no particular upper bound, but "couldn't care less" isn't, because there is a lower bound.

Do you want to do some silly math? Here's some silly math.
C = [0, ∞)
c ∈ C
~∃x ∈ C : x < c
∀x ∈ C : c ≤ x (c is the lower bound of C)
c = 0 (by definition of C.)
QED.

And yes, of course emphasizing how much you don't care about something reveals investment—investment in getting the other person to stop talking about it!

(FWIW, I'm against prescriptivism, agree with the register discussion, and all that jazz, but I enjoyed the Weird Al song and assumed it was tongue-in-cheek. IME most of the people who care about language enough to get hot under the collar at perceived misuse also care enough to not be prescriptivists, at least past the age of fifteen. I've never seen anybody get into a fight over the Oxford comma who didn't know exactly how silly they were being. Is it different in England, or have I just been lucky?)

[Second posting attempt; please forgive if doubled!]
Shim at 03:26 on 2014-08-01
Possibly-interesting thought on a few hours' sleep: I think what we have here is a case of registers of logic, which mildly amuses me. In formal logic, I will take your word that since X is undefined, it follows that it is unbounded. In informal logic, I don't think this is the case,* so that reasoning does not compute, giving way to "there is no lower value of C" as the solution.

This is a very vague equivalent to, for example, the rule that "lend" and "learn" are intrinsically directional verbs in Standard English, whereas in other dialects the direction is provided by context. In both cases, the more formal register defines things more strictly, so there are more deductions you can make - although I appreciate the language version doesn't work so well as I can't think of any great matches off the top of my head.

*while I'm not entitled to define colloquial logic, I would argue that one of its rules is "ignore whatever looks like bollocks". Infinite C looks like bollocks because it would include high values of C, and if C is high then it can decrease, therefore the statement would be false.

But yes, I appreciate that neither of us is very serious!
Arthur B at 10:37 on 2014-08-01
Which goes to my point that the places where I'm usually aware of the inadequacies of my English, of it not really being fluent, confident, you know, just effortlessly *right* - are exactly not the formal ones, but the slang, colloquialism, regionalisms and so on.

I guess this highlights why it is useful in some respects to have something like Standard English - in the sense that it's useful to have a version of English which can be taught to non-English speakers and allow them to hit a point where they can make themselves understood to a wide variety of English speakers without having to learn heaps and heaps of different dialects. Although being the dialect of choice to teach to outsiders does inevitably privilege Standard English, at the same time I think it's probably too late to turn around and start teaching the world to speak Scouse.
Dan H at 13:43 on 2014-08-01
@foghawk

Your 'literal' interpretation of "couldn't care less" was extremely difficult to follow. Even if we are playing at following the Rules of Logic rather than actual language use, you've interpreted the referent of the "less" in multiple ways (first as 'less than some unspecified specific amount', then as 'less than all conceivable amounts') and not mentioned when you were switching between them, with the result that your "strictly literal" reading was made almost unreadable by, er, the vagueness of the English language.


I'm quite happy to concede this point - in Call of Cthulhu terms I was aiming for a Fast Talk check rather than a Persuade check. And as you say it is of course incorrect to go from "less than some unspecified amount" to "less than all conceivable amounts".

The simpler, plain English version is that if you care less than somebody else, then there is at least one other person than whom you *could* care less, which would make the statement that you couldn't false.

Of course if we allow language to work the way it really works, there is strong descriptive evidence that "less" and "more" when unmodified (and again I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of people would object to the idea of "less" and "more" being used without a specific referent) are conventionally assumed to mean "less than is currently the case" or "more than is currently the case". I'm happy to let this go on the grounds that nobody objects to "could care less" on the grounds that you are not saying who you could care less than.

I'm afraid I'm *not* willing to concede that the "I can't personally care less" interpretation can be rejected except on grounds of convention. It is certainly true that people do not really say "I couldn't care less" to imply only that their personal level of caring could not decrease, but this again speaks to its status as an idiom with a meaning that does not depend on its strict form. By the same reasoning, people do not say "I could care less" to imply only that their personal level of caring is greater than zero but less than infinity. If you give one sentence the benefit of the doubt in this case, you must give the same benefit to the other sentence.

Again, I am perfectly willing to throw out any interpretation of "I couldn't care less" other than "I couldn't care less (than is currently the case)" - it is reasonable to argue that this follows well established rules of the language, and the same reasoning can be applied to "I could care less (than is currently the case)".

What I *don't* see is any evidence that people use "I couldn't [X] less/more" to mean "I X as little/much as is humanly possible." I think they quite commonly use it to mean "I X very little" or "I X very much". So what we have here is a case of special pleading for the case of caring - the notion that the *only* way in which it could be true that a person could not care less (than they do currently) is if they care zero.

This involves several assumptions. For a start, it assumes that caring is bounded below at zero, which it doesn't necessarily have to be. Indeed one could argue that the closest we actually have to a quantitative measure of caring is the economic concept of utility, which is defined entirely in relative terms. While you can assign zero utility to a particular option, it is a crucial element of utility theory that zero is just a point on the scale. The lower bound of caring under this model is the single thing about which you care least.

This leaves us with a new possible reading for "I couldn't care less about [X]" which is "X is the single thing about which I care least" - this being our operationally defined level of minimum caring. Now if what we care about is the *specificity* of the phrase (since, after all, the argument against "could care less" is that it isn't a useful guide to how much you care) then this actually makes "couldn't care less" look even better. Except that now "couldn't care less" is surely extraordinarily overly-specific. Do you really care *as little* about - say - the World Cup or what Will and Kate called their baby as you do about, for example, what the seven billion eight hundred thousand two hundred and forty-sixth digit of pi is? Or what the great great great grandfather of a person you have never met ate for breakfast on the 21st of October in 1887?

And even if we accept that there really are a very large set of things which occupy an equally low position on a person's personal hierarchy of caring, it still doesn't rule out the interpretation that "I couldn't care less" simply means "my current arbitrary level of personal caring could not decrease". Indeed there are several instances in which people do seem to make these sorts of comparisons. The most obvious example here is "it was the least I could do." This doesn't mean that you did nothing, it means that you did the minimum amount that you felt was appropriate.

Indeed I struggle to find a single example in the whole of English of a situation in which people use "couldn't X less" to mean "do not X at all". I certainly can't think of any situation in which a person who says "I couldn't X more/less" is relating their performance to an absolute value rather than their own capabilities.

And finally, even if we do accept that "couldn't care less" can only be interpreted as meaning "care zero", I would argue that this is a strong argument in *favour* of "could care less" and "against" couldn't care less. There is already a phrase in English that means "care zero" and that phrase is "don't care". In this context "could care less" is an extremely useful phrase for indicating a nonspecific, small level of caring. If we accept that it is unacceptable or illogical to use "couldn't care less" to refer to a small but non-zero level of caring, then "couldn't care less" becomes wholly useless. It is either redundant with "don't care" or it is false.

IME most of the people who care about language enough to get hot under the collar at perceived misuse also care enough to not be prescriptivists, at least past the age of fifteen.


How can you *not* be a prescriptivist if you get hot under the collar about a perceived misuse? Most perceived misuses (split infinitives, literally-as-intensifier, the which/that distinction) are only considered misuses at all by poorly-informed prescriptivists who assume that because they learned something in primary school it must be an inviolable truth.

Plus, you get a lot of people who *explicitly* argue that descriptive linguistics is false, evil, and the enemy of social justice.

@Shimmin:

ossibly-interesting thought on a few hours' sleep: I think what we have here is a case of registers of logic, which mildly amuses me. In formal logic, I will take your word that since X is undefined, it follows that it is unbounded. In informal logic, I don't think this is the case,* so that reasoning does not compute, giving way to "there is no lower value of C" as the solution.


As foghawk points out, it isn't even formal logic. It's flimflam.

I would *semi* seriously argue that you can construct a deliberately perverse interpretation of "I couldn't care less" as being true only if you don't care less than anyone or anything else, but only if you utterly ignore all of the conventions of natural language.
Jamie Johnston at 13:58 on 2014-08-01
Hello folks! I'm still alive, for better or worse. A couple of thoughts on 'couldn't care less'.

I think maybe part of the difficulty with the expression 'couldn't care less' is that it's an example of a type of idiom that has now fallen somewhat out of fashion.

As Dan says, it has always relied on the audience mentally adding 'than I currently care because the extent to which I currently care is already the smallest extent to which it is possible, or at least reasonable, for anyone to care'. And I think Dan's right to say that that is quite a lot of information to leave implicit in an expression and that it isn't the only rational thing that you could add to the end of 'I couldn't care less' to make it into a complete sentence.

What's maybe relevant is that 'couldn't care less' used 9I believe) to be just one example of a fairly common type of construction. There was a social / linguistic context in which people commonly used various different 'couldn't [X] more / less' type expressions and it was generally agreed that in all such cases the missing piece was 'than I currently [X] because the extent to which I currently [X] is the greatest extent to which anybody could possibly, or at least reasonably, [X]'. The example that springs to mind is Noel Coward's I've been to a marvellous party where the refrain is 'I couldn't have liked it more'. At that time it was reasonable to expect people to know what extra information they had to read into that type of phrase.

Nowadays people don't really use that construction much (in my experience - I haven't checked the Google stats). Few people would say 'I couldn't have liked it more'. 'I couldn't care less' has become a bit stranded. That makes it more difficult for people to readily supply the missing piece, and it also makes it less reasonable to criticize people for not being able to. Of course most people know perfectly well what 'I couldn't care less' means, but I suspect that isn't because they're able to instinctively add 'than I currently care because it would be impossible or at least unreasonable for anyone to care less than I currently do' - it's just because they've learned the meaning and connotations of that specific solitary phrase.

When a common phrase becomes linguistically stranded in that way, so that people understand what it means but no longer have an instinctive grasp of how the individual words fit together in a way that produces that meaning, then it starts to approach the status of an arbitrary signifier and the only real virtue it can claim to have over any other arbitrary signifier of the same meaning is that it got there first.

Second thought. I'm not sure, Dan, about your argument that 'I couldn't care less' should be deprecated because the mere fact that someone is saying it suggests that it's untrue. I agree that the mere fact that someone is saying it probably does suggest it's untrue. But does that tell us anything about the correctness or validity of the phrase itself? There are quite a few things one can say that are undermined by the mere fact that they're being said (e.g. 'this is a statement', 'I don't exist', 'I pass over the subject of grammar without mentioning it'). If someone says something like that then it may be fair to point out that they are being disingenuous or self-contradictory, but the phrases themselves are perfectly good English and perfectly idiomatic. So I'm not sure that bit of your argument really takes things any further.
Jamie Johnston at 14:04 on 2014-08-01
Dan, I was writing my comment above before I saw your latest so I hadn't appreciated that you doubt whether people have ever actually understood 'I couldn't care less' to mean 'It would be impossible for anyone to care less'. I haven't actually got evidence to challenge you on that, it's just always been my impression of how people used to use 'couldn't [X] less / more'. If that isn't how the construction originated and was originally understood then I find it very difficult to understand how it could ever have come to mean what it did.
Dan H at 16:15 on 2014-08-01
@Jamie - replying slightly out of order.

Dan, I was writing my comment above before I saw your latest so I hadn't appreciated that you doubt whether people have ever actually understood 'I couldn't care less' to mean 'It would be impossible for anyone to care less'.


That's not quite what I meant.

I don't believe that people go around with strictly defined, rigorously quantitative models of caring in their heads, and so I don't think it is valid to read "I couldn't care less" as making a rigorously quantitative claim about the amount you care.

Personally, I tend to parse both "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less" as implying a nonspecific, low level of caring. If somebody says "I couldn't care less about the royal family", I don't take that to mean that they literally would not bat an eyelid if you dismembered Kate Middleton in front of them (this being the level of *absolute indifference* that would be implied by its being literally *impossible* for anybody to care less). I just take it as meaning that they aren't particularly interested in the royals.

I certainly don't think that it "I couldn't care less" *formally* means that you don't care at all, or that you care zero, or that it would be impossible for anybody to care less than you. I suspect that *in practice* people might use it to mean this, but this relies on a convention that is specific to the phrase, not one that can be deduced from its construction.

Breaking the sentence down:

I don't think anybody would argue that "I couldn't" means "nobody could." If I say "I couldn't do the last question on the exam" I'm not saying that the last question on the exam was impossible.

There *is* an extra level of meaning in "I couldn't [comparative]". For example, an advert in this newspaper contains the line "our prices couldn't get any lower."

This clearly does not constitute a claim that all of this vendor's goods are free. Nor, I would argue, does it strictly constitute a claim that their prices are lower than anybody else's. It merely suggests low prices (I would note that here I am slightly contradicting my earlier claim that "I couldn't [X] more/less" claims refer to personal ability rather than an absolute value, but it reinforces my claim that they do not constitute a claim to have the lowest/highest value imaginable).

"I couldn't have liked it more" is a similar example. It does not suggest that Mr Coward enjoyed the party as much as was humanly possible. Just that he enjoyed it as much as one might reasonably expected to enjoy a party given its relative level of marvelousness. Certainly it in no way constitutes a claim that nobody else could have enjoyed the party more than he did.

So the only meaning you can get for "I couldn't care less" from its structure is "I care a small amount". "I couldn't care less" does not strictly imply zero pricing any more than "our prices couldn't get any lower" strictly implies zero price or "I couldn't have liked it more" implies infinite liking.

If we now compare this with "I could care less" it winds up looking very similar. "I could" by itself implies nothing except that it is possible for you to do something. But "could [comparative]" tends to have specific implications. Nobody suggests that it is wrong to say "that could have been worse" even though strictly speaking it means only "that was not literally the worst thing imaginable". Rather "that could have been worse" means "that was not particularly good, but wasn't completely terrible."

Similarly while a *completely literal* reading of "I could care less" means only "I care some amount other than zero", a reading which includes the same level of awareness of English which we are applying to "I couldn't care less" reveals that it has the clear and unambiguous meaning "I don't care very much".

Neither "I could care less" nor "I couldn't care less" mean "I do not care at all" or "nobody could care less than I do". It is, of course, perfectly valid to say "I couldn't care less" when you mean "I do not care at all", but this is a specific usage not strictly implied by the actual structure of the phrase. It would be strange to use "I couldn't care less" to mean "I do not care at all" but I don't think people use it to mean this. I think they use it to mean "I don't care very much."

Since not caring *at all* implies a *very very extreme* level of not caring, it follows that "I could care less" is a perfectly correct way to describe the level of indifference most people feel towards most subjects towards which they are indifferent. "I couldn't care less" is, of course, equally good. But I favour the former, because I prefer understatement to overstatement.
Andrew Currall at 18:11 on 2014-08-01
Dan,

> Neither "I could care less" nor "I couldn't care less" mean "I do not care at all"

I don't agree. "I couldn't care less" *does* mean "I don't care at all"; that's all it really *can* mean, and I'd use the phrases interchangeably.

While I do agree it is possible to rationalise use of "I could care less" in such a way that it makes sense, and I'm sure people do sometimes use it correctly and understanding what it means, I think you're wrong to suggest it didn't originate out of ignorance and lack of thought. The graph you linked to actually supports this somewhat.

You'll note that pre-1960, "I could care less" basically didn't exist, while use of "I couldn't care less" increased sharply. "I could care less" only started to appear once "I couldn't care less" had already become well established. This is quite unlike the pattern for lifts/elavators, where the two terms arose pretty much in tandem.

The former phrase, I am convinced, arose out of people hearing the latter, being unable (simply because they didn't think very hard, I suspect) to fully grasp the logic because it incorporates a double-negative and is slightly oblique, and mis-remembering the phrase and going for a slightly simpler one. It's not a case of *mis-hearing* as such.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 19:24 on 2014-08-01
I don't agree. "I couldn't care less" *does* mean "I don't care at all"; that's all it really *can* mean, and I'd use the phrases interchangeably.


It is perhaps a too strong opinion to say that it can't mean anything else. Imagine if you will, that "couldn't care less" was not a well known idiom. Does it not refer to the capability of caring and not to the amount of it? Nothing in the phrase itself without the context of usage enforces only one possible interpretation. I had this example above:

"Could you please stop watching that Farscape marathon and sleep? You shouldn't fixate on things like that!"
"But I couldn't care less!"

Now it might be a clumsy example, but couldn't you use it like that(or in a similar sense)? The reason one wouldn't is because it is an idiom.

On a tangent, is "proper english" something that was born out of Oxbridge? The formation of a written language and the effort to standardize a language is always interesting, especially in the case of smaller languages which were standardized very purposefully and through formal authority because of nationalism. Like in in the finnish language there was a debate between different dialects in the mid 19th cntury and a century after that, people coming to study in Helsinki from elsewhere in Finland(like my parents) were treated like simpletons or rubes for having a regional dialect, which they quickly eliminated from their speech. It's not so bad anymore, though, but it is still interesting how quickly these things happen and how people just don't have a firm grasp of incidental so many things in the present are.
Dan H at 20:59 on 2014-08-01
I don't agree. "I couldn't care less" *does* mean "I don't care at all"; that's all it really *can* mean, and I'd use the phrases interchangeably.


This implies to me that you must believe one of the following things.

1) That "I couldn't" means "nobody could" or "it is impossible to" in all cases.

2) That "I couldn't [comparison]" means "it is impossible for anybody to [comparison]" in all cases.

3) That "I couldn't care less" has a specific meaning unique to itself.

If you believe 1, then I suspect you are in a minority of, well, one. If you believe 2 then I am pretty sure that the world is replete with counter-examples unless you're going to argue that "our prices couldn't be lower" "really" means our prices are zero and that a shop which makes that claim when their prices are non-zero is using the phrase "incorrectly."

But to make that claim you would effectively need to believe statement 1, because you would have to argue that "our prices couldn't be lower" can only mean "it is impossible for anybody to have prices lower than ours" which is not, in fact, what the sentence means.

I think we get into quite murky waters here quite quickly because we're getting into the rather difficult territory of - if you would pardon the phrasing - what "means" means.

That is, I am sure that "couldn't care less" does indeed mean "don't care at all" provided that you understand "don't care at all" doesn't really mean "don't care at all" at all. If I say I don't care at all about the World Cup, what I really mean is that I care significantly less about the world cup than I do about most other things, and mildly resent the fact that it meant this year's season of The Apprentice was delayed because of it.

I do not mean that my attitude towards the world cup is true, ultimate, perfect indifference. If a very isolationist government decided that we were going to pull out of the World Cup because we shouldn't be having contact with foreign cultures, I suspect I would care quite a lot. If the World Cup final was between two extremely unlikely teams, I would be at least mildly interested. If one of those teams was from Mars, I would be extremely interested.

Again, I don't care about the royals, and I have no opinion whatsoever about what Princess Michael of Kent wears to ascot (although again, I would pay attention if she went dressed as Lady Gaga), but if you put Baby George into a food mixer and told me that you would switch it on unless I told you to stop, I would tell you to stop.

I care about the World Cup about as much as I care about any other largely inoffensive cultural event. I care about the royal family about as much as I care about any other group of people I have never met, but see occasionally on television.

In order to truly not care *at all* about something you would have to be either completely ignorant of its existence, or a sociopath.

Of course you could argue that people are deliberately *exaggerating* their indifference for rhetorical effect, but I don't believe they are. I think when somebody says they "don't care at all" or "couldn't care less" they mean that they are indifferent within the normal bounds of everyday, non-sociopathic human indifference.

You'll note that pre-1960, "I could care less" basically didn't exist, while use of "I couldn't care less" increased sharply. "I could care less" only started to appear once "I couldn't care less" had already become well established. This is quite unlike the pattern for lifts/elavators, where the two terms arose pretty much in tandem.


I would suggest that you are reading the graphs incorrectly.

It is true that "could care less" lags behind "couldn't care less" by about ten years. The same is true of "lift" and "elevator".

"Elevator" rose in popularity more rapidly than "lift". "Couldn't care less" rose in popularity more rapidly than "could care less".

Your argument seems to rest on the assertion that there is a correlation between the rate of increase in the use of "could care less" and the level of use of "couldn't care less". This is simply not true. The rate of increase in the use of "could care less" remained relatively constant from 1960 to 2000 despite the use of "couldn't care less" more than doubling in that time.

The former phrase, I am convinced, arose out of people hearing the latter, being unable (simply because they didn't think very hard, I suspect) to fully grasp the logic because it incorporates a double-negative and is slightly oblique, and mis-remembering the phrase and going for a slightly simpler one.


How much contempt do you have for your fellow human beings if you think any speaker of English (especially those speakers who produce the books and journals which make up the Google ngram corpus - remember this is a book search, not just counting ghits) would be genuinely unable to parse the phrase "couldn't care less"? Do you really believe that fully one third of the people who had novels published in English in the year 2000 were incapable of understanding what the word "couldn't" means?

I would also point out that the phenomenon you describe is, indeed, a well documented one in linguistics. For example a lot of people do hear the phrase "for all intents and purposes" and then reconstruct it from memory using more familiar vocabulary leading to "for all intensive purposes". The ngram plots for those phrases, however, look decidedly different with "intensive purposes" not appearing at all until "intents and purposes" had been in continuous use for more than a century, and then barely making it off the x-axis.

And in case you think it's just that "for all intents and purposes" isn't as common a phrase, here is the graph for all four ngrams together.

There is no way that the "could care less" graph can be explained merely by "ignorance and lack of thought."

If nothing else, you're trying to have it both ways. If, as you assert, "don't care at all" is the only possible interpretation of the phrase "couldn't care less" then how can people fail to interpret it that way, or to remember it afterwards? If your argument is that "I couldn't care less" is not merely an idiom with a fixed meaning but a natural English sentence whose meaning follows directly from its structure, it is literally impossible that a halfway competent speaker of English would be unable to interpret or recall it. It is, after all, a *four word phrase*.

You seem to have bought into Weird Al's belief that anybody who uses language in a manner that does not align perfectly with yours is a dumb mouthbreather. I can see no other way to explain your belief that millions of people all over the world would fail to correctly parse a sentence consisting of four extraordinarily common words, all taking their normal meaning.
Dan H at 21:04 on 2014-08-01
On a tangent, is "proper english" something that was born out of Oxbridge?


Not really. Oxbridge is old enough that it goes back to the time when Higher Education took place entirely in Latin.

As far as I know "Proper English" sort of goes back to the Tudors, when public education became a thing and there was a real concerted effort to try to get everybody in the country speaking more or less the same dialect. Also, printing press. I seem to recall that it was quite bound up with a lot of other complex issues involving the Reformation. But we're really talking about a process of standardisation that took centuries and had some really nasty elements involved (I have a friend at my fencing club who is full of depressing anecdotes about the efforts the English made to exterminate the Welsh language, for example).
http://foghawk.livejournal.com/ at 21:31 on 2014-08-01
Now hold on:

If we accept that it is unacceptable or illogical to use "couldn't care less" to refer to a small but non-zero level of caring, then "couldn't care less" becomes wholly useless. It is either redundant with "don't care" or it is false.

1. There is also already a phrase in English used to indicate a small, nonspecific level of caring and that phrase is "meh". So what? That is simply not a justification. The existence of many ways to express one meaning does not at all imply that any of them are incorrect, or must somehow mean something else. Or shall we ban synonyms?

2. "I don't care" is not in fact redundant with "I couldn't care less":
"I don't care" means 'I don't care. I might let you go on about this for a while.'
"I couldn't care less" means 'I am using a linguistic flourish to call your attention to the fact that I do not care. Please respect my wishes not to be bored or annoyed.'

How can you *not* be a prescriptivist if you get hot under the collar about a perceived misuse?

The same way you can be upset by a misaligned picture frame without being some kind of interior decoration Nazi? ("Perceived misuse" does include actual misuses.) Anything that fumbles the register hurts me, in my heart. I know it's wrong to go around correcting people without invitation, but I still have feelings. :C

(I suspect a lot of the upset over "could"/"couldn't care less" is that they're two logically opposing statements which are used to mean the exact same thing. I don't know how many of the people it bothers also answer positively and negatively phrased questions differently—but I suspect it's a lot of us. Normally I use an echo response if there's ambiguity, but I once thoughtlessly replied "No" to the question "Do you not need this anymore?" and spent thirty seconds trying to get it back.)

Plus, you get a lot of people who *explicitly* argue that descriptive linguistics is false, evil, and the enemy of social justice.

Okay, that one is news to me. Sounds like some impressive mental gymnastics.
Arthur B at 21:42 on 2014-08-01
although again, I would pay attention if she went dressed as Lady Gaga

Whimsical tangent: is it actually possible to dress as Lady Gaga? Part of her thing is evolving her look so rapidly that you can't actually dress as Lady Gaga, you can only dress as what Lady Gaga looked like two or three concerts ago.
Dan H at 22:01 on 2014-08-01
1. There is also already a phrase in English used to indicate a small, nonspecific level of caring and that phrase is "meh". So what? That is simply not a justification. The existence of many ways to express one meaning does not at all imply that any of them are incorrect, or must somehow mean something else. Or shall we ban synonyms?


Sorry, you're quite right of course on both counts. Again I'm not really arguing with you here, I'm arguing with other people who take as axiomatic that there can only be one right way to express things and that only one construction can *possibly* be correct.

he same way you can be upset by a misaligned picture frame without being some kind of interior decoration Nazi? ("Perceived misuse" does include actual misuses.) Anything that fumbles the register hurts me, in my heart. I know it's wrong to go around correcting people without invitation, but I still have feelings. :C


I think we might be talking at slightly cross purposes here.

There are a number of usages which only a prescriptivist would perceive as wrong, like split infinitives, using "which" to introduce a restrictive relative clause, and so on, and these are the things I usually see people complaining about (because those are the things that you tend to get in formal publications).

It wasn't descriptive linguists who got up in arms about Waterstones taking the apostrophe out of their name. And, like I say, it generally isn't descriptive linguists who rant about how the language is being destroyed by signs in supermarkets that say "ten items or less".

I suspect a lot of the upset over "could"/"couldn't care less" is that they're two logically opposing statements which are used to mean the exact same thing.


I suspect that there's a lot of truth to that. I tend to draw a comparison between could/couldn't care less and cannot over/under estimate.
Chris A at 08:34 on 2014-08-02
Adrienne:

My answer is, no, of course it's not any more "inherently hierarchical" than other sorts of differences between people and their artifacts; what seems essential is actually upheld by various power relations, both current and historical.

I think I phrased my question poorly. What I meant to ask was not “but aren’t the varieties of English we regard as ‘standard’ inherently superior to all the others, because they were here before the world was and resonate with the music of the spheres?” but whether it’s possible to privilege certain varieties of the language as “standard” without implying that the others are somehow “deviant.” To which your suggestion of conceiving of SE as a register and Dan’s of increasing the social prestige of fluency in non-standard dialects both seem like reasonable answers.

Dan H:

I would argue that the common objections to "literally exploded" are similar.

Perhaps, but why stake out a position against the “literally”-police if all of your examples involve Officer Poppycock making a false arrest? What about peeving on uses of “literally” that mean something closer to “virtually”? The OED, interestingly, weighs in on this use of the word:

 c. colloq. Used to indicate that some (freq. conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense: ‘virtually, as good as’; (also) ‘completely, utterly, absolutely’.
Now one of the most common uses, although often considered irregular in standard English since it reverses the original sense of literally (‘not figuratively or metaphorically’).

I think it’s accurate to call this usage a reversal of the original sense (though calling the sense in question ‘original’ is iffy). I would say that the speaker is sometimes conscious of the reversal and sometimes not, with results ranging all the way from added emphasis to unintentionally hilarious imagery.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 10:01 on 2014-08-02
I think it’s accurate to call this usage a reversal of the original sense (though calling the sense in question ‘original’ is iffy).


I'm not in the habit of arguing with the OED, but this post finds that the original meaning was was "related to letters":

'The word literally originally meant “related to letters” as in this passage from 1689: “and in the Hebrew the words are literally, The King of Moab, the first.” Around the same time, the word began to be used interchangeably with “actually.”'

The meaning of actually came almost immediately too, but this Language Log post traces the figurative use to the 1760s so its hardly a recent "corruption" and it was used among others by Cooper, Dickens, Thackeray and Thoreau in the figurative sense(as outlined in this Slate piece from a former editor of OED). If the "wrong" usage has been around for 250 years and it has been used by writers considered widely to be masterful users of the language in question, it seems a bit wrongheaded to carry on with it; especially with the vitriol of some participants.
Chris A at 11:32 on 2014-08-02
Yes, I think that's probably right, though to judge by the OED's citations (which go back to Middle English in both the "related to litterae" and "devoid of metaphor" senses) both meanings of the word probably pre-exist its currency in English, so it may be impossible to call either one prior to the other.

Out of curiosity, I went hunting for the earliest instance of the latter meaning I could find, and came up with a passage from Cicero's De Haruspicum Responsis. Cicero has been asked what city he is from, and answers that he's from a city that cannot afford to be without him. His interlocutor doesn't like this answer, and Cicero asks: quid igitur responderem? [...] me civem esse Romanum? litterate respondissem. (What, then, should I have said? That I am a Roman citizen? I would have responded litterate.) Though this meaning of litterate appears to be unparalleled elsewhere in classical Latin, and could probably be debated...
Janne Kirjasniemi at 12:19 on 2014-08-02
That seems to come close to the meaning of "exactly to the letter". Even if its use in classical latin can be debated(like so many words and terms can in latin can), Cicero is such a trend setter in style, that that sense is probably behind its later usage.
Dan H at 22:27 on 2014-08-02
@Chris A

I think it’s accurate to call this usage a reversal of the original sense (though calling the sense in question ‘original’ is iffy).


I think it's accurate to say it is *perceived* as being a reversal, but the synonyms that the OED gives for this usage of "literally" are all words that mean very similar things to the "primary" meaning of the word, words like "completely, utterly, absolutely". I'd be inclined to add "actually" to that list.

This isn't the same as the peever claim that people use it to "mean" figuratively, when they clearly don't.

While I'm here, I've also got a couple of other completely out-of-context comments from upthread to reply to:

@Jamie

Second thought. I'm not sure, Dan, about your argument that 'I couldn't care less' should be deprecated because the mere fact that someone is saying it suggests that it's untrue. I agree that the mere fact that someone is saying it probably does suggest it's untrue. But does that tell us anything about the correctness or validity of the phrase itself?


This is a very fair point. I think my intent here was to explain why people who choose "could care less" over "could care less" cannot be seen as making an error, any more than somebody who says "I was quite excited" rather than "I was so excited I literally exploded" is making an error.

I think I was also trying to reverse the normal argument that people who use deprecated constructions do so in ignorance of their proper meanings. I suspect that most people who use "I couldn't care less" don't do so with the *intent* of sounding like they're protesting too much, or like they are deliberately exaggerating their indifference for rhetorical effect. They believe (I would argue falsely) that they are giving a true and accurate description of how much they care.

Again, I don't actually think this is a problem. "I could care less", "I couldn't care less", "I don't care", "I don't particularly care" and "I couldn't give a flying fuck" all express roughly the same sentiment. But if people are going to start arguing that one usage is evidence of ignorance or lack of thought, I am very much inclined to argue that the others are. I blame my imp of the perverse.

@arilou-skiff

My particular dialect of swedish is famous for piling negations onto each other (and they do tend to work like in maths) (well, it's not just piling negations but also a tendency towards understatement)

We can literally say something "Well, this wasn't ungood." (it means it was good)


Sorry, I meant to reply to this ages ago.

I was being a little facetious when I said that, in English, "didn't do nothing" means "did something." This is, in essence, a false assertion made by people who don't understand anywhere near as much grammar as they think they do.

Basically it is common in some dialects in English to use multiple negation for emphasis. So "never" becomes "didn't never". "I didn't do anything" becomes "I never did nothing". This actually used to be perfectly standard until a bunch of well intentioned pillocks in the sixteenth century decided that English genuinely did have to follow the same logic as mathematics, meaning that "didn't not" had to mean the same as "did." You could argue that multiple negation for emphasis survives in constructions like "oh no you don't".

This ill-conceived prohibition against a perfectly sensible feature of the language led to a "no double negatives" rule based around the entirely false argument that linguistic negation works like mathematical negation, which it doesn't. Now as it happens, because this prohibition was observed so completely, multiple negation *has* become essentially ungrammatical in standard English, but not for the reasons people think.

"I didn't do nothing" is not good standard English but neither is "I didn't never do nothing" even though the "mathematical logic" that is supposed to underpin the rules of negation in English would render "I didn't never do nothing" as a perfectly acceptable equivalent to "I never did anything." Essentially there is now simply a rule in Standard English which states that we do not have negation agreement, that the correct negative form of "I have some bananas" is "I do not have any bananas" or "I have no bananas" but not "I don't have no bananas".

Because we are a deeply classist people, we assume that anybody whose dialect *does* include negation agreement is both illiterate and innumerate. We completely ignore the fact that French, Spanish and I believe Italian all have negation agreement as mandatory parts of their grammar. If you were to translate "I don't have any bananas" into Spanish as "No tengo algunos platanos" (apologies, I have never worked out how to do accents in this comment form) you would be making an error because you would have to use the word for "none" not the word for "some".

So essentially "I never did nothing" is incorrect in standard English but does not *actually* mean "I did something". It's just incorrect. Although when I say "incorrect" I really mean "virtually every English-speaker in the world will understand exactly what you mean but about a third of them will deliberately misinterpret you because where non-standard usage is concerned our culture celebrates ignorance".

But confusingly, we *also* have constructions like the one you mention. We can't say "wasn't ungood" but we can say things like "isn't uncommon" or even things like "I'm not unmoved". And of course there's a famous song by Tom Jones called "it's not unusual" meaning "it is usual" (or, in the words of the song, "it happens every day").

Of course there's also a famous song that goes "I can't get no satisfaction" which virtually no speaker of English would interpret as meaning anything except "I can't get any satisfaction."

Negation: it's not unconfusing.
Chris A at 10:06 on 2014-08-03
@Janne

I actually meant to suggest Cicero’s use of litterate as the earliest example of an adverb derived from litterae used to mean something close to its modern sense of “in a literal, exact, or actual sense; not figuratively, allegorically, etc.”

If we expand our understanding of literal as a word meaning “of or concerning letters” to include occurrences in situations like Cicero’s (from which “actual” letters, as in the letters that make up written words, are absent), we've already arrived at the modern definition of the word, I think.

And by more or less the same route the word took to evolve from the former meaning to the latter in the first place: “literally” probably comes to mean “not figuratively” through its Mediaeval use to describe the level of Biblical exegesis that is concerned with the text’s primary meaning (and so metaphorically “by the letter”) as opposed to allegorical, moral, or anagogical modes of interpretation.

(By the way, I was probably wrong about Cicero’s use of the word. A friend pointed out to me today that the reference is probably to litteratio, which was the lowest level of primary education given to young children at Rome; Cicero is saying he would have answered like a schoolboy.)

@Dan H

On “literally” -

I don’t think it’s reasonable to parse “completely, utterly, absolutely” as effective synonyms for “not figuratively” in the context of the full definition and the citations. Or in any context, really: would literally-peevers object to an expression like “completely/utterly/absolutely shellshocked”? No.

On double negatives -

Huh. I would have guessed that the disappearance of the true double negative from prestige dialects of English in the early modern period had to do with an increase in the prevalence of the competing Latinate construction in which a double negative is used as a form of dramatic understatement (“litotes,” like your example of “not uncommon”).

You’re probably right that it’s a rare to nonexistent double negative that produces true ambiguity. Many double negative expressions probably don’t cross registers: unlike the Romans, we don’t write “not never” to mean “sometimes” in the formal registers, and dialects that admit double negatives probably don’t use the “non un-adjective” to mean “rather adjective” construction.

I suppose “not nothing” (and likely other phrases) truly can mean either “nothing” or “something” depending on the register and context in which it occurs, but I doubt much true confusion results from this.

It’s surprising, though, to learn that the origin of the objection was an analogy to mathematics rather than to Latin. Would you mind pointing me in the direction of a source on this?
Jamie Johnston at 13:11 on 2014-08-03
And, like I say, it generally isn't descriptive linguists who rant about how the language is being destroyed by signs in supermarkets that say "ten items or less".

Tangentially, I find this one an odd thing even for prescriptivists to get huffy about because it's perfectly possible to read that phrase in a way that complies with the rule they're trying to assert. It's only 'wrong' if you complete the thought as 'ten items or less items than that'. But you can equally read it as 'ten items or less stuff than that', which is unimpeachable by any standard.

It's a little bit like my geography teacher at school telling us off for saying that 'a megalopolis is when several neighbouring cities grow together into a single very large urban area'. She found it annoying because she interpreted 'is' as '=' and therefore felt that it ought to be followed by a noun. But 'is' also means 'exists' and if you read the sentence in that way there's nothing to complain about.

People who have complaints like these are not really complaining about the 'correctness' of the text itself. They're really using the text as an excuse to make unjustified negative (by their own standards) assumptions about the author of the text.
Dan H at 13:43 on 2014-08-03
@Chris A

I don’t think it’s reasonable to parse “completely, utterly, absolutely” as effective synonyms for “not figuratively” in the context of the full definition and the citations. Or in any context, really: would literally-peevers object to an expression like “completely/utterly/absolutely shellshocked”? No.


I don't think it's reasonable to parse "completely, absolutely, utterly" as effective synonyms for "no figuratively", but nor do I think it is reasonable to parse them as meaning the *opposite* of "not figuratively". And I would argue that they are "closer" in meaning (insofar as that is a meaningful concept) to "literally" than to "figuratively".

And actually I think the best synonym for "not-figuratively-literally" is, well, "actually". I'm pretty sure peevers don't object to somebody saying "I was actually shellshocked" either. They only object to the specific construction "I was literally shellshocked." But the meaning of "actually" is even closer to the meaning of "literally" than the meaning of "completely" or "absolutely."

Huh. I would have guessed that the disappearance of the true double negative from prestige dialects of English in the early modern period had to do with an increase in the prevalence of the competing Latinate construction in which a double negative is used as a form of dramatic understatement (“litotes,” like your example of “not uncommon”).


Sorry, I wasn't intending to make an authoritative assertion about history. You might well be right that the prohibition (which I am pretty sure *does* originate with the first formalised grammars, not with any pre-existing usage) is grounded in the (very well documented) desire to make English work like Latin as much as or more than the mathematically-derived idea that "two negatives must make a positive". I'm working off second-hand information here so I'm afraid I don't have sources.

I would say that *anecdotally* it is the mathematical argument that I see used most often in the present day (although that does not, of course, speak to the history). The argument is that people who say "didn't never" to mean "didn't" are literally too stupid or ignorant to understand that "didn't never" is *logically required* to mean "did at some point."

Many double negative expressions probably don’t cross registers: unlike the Romans, we don’t write “not never” to mean “sometimes” in the formal registers, and dialects that admit double negatives probably don’t use the “non un-adjective” to mean “rather adjective” construction.


I'm not completely sure about that. I don't think any speaker of English, in any dialect would have any greater difficulty parsing "I can't get no satisfaction" than they would have parsing "It's not unusual to be loved by anyone (bada bada badum)". Nor do I think either sentence has strictly higher *register*.

Similarly I don't think we actually use "not nothing" to mean "something" in formal English. I would argue that, out of context "there wasn't nothing in the box" *only* means "there was nothing in the box (informal register, non-standard dialect)".

Given greater context "not nothing" can mean "something" but only - I think - when contrasted with an earlier use of "nothing" specifically to mean "nothing", and again I think this is independent of register.

For example, if I say "the doctor said there wasn't nothing wrong with me" then I'm using non-standard English to mean that the doctor said I was fine, but if I say "I thought it was nothing, but then I want to the doctor and she told me it wasn't "nothing"," then *context and emphasis* mean that the doctor said it was in fact something.

But I am pretty sure that works in a less formal register as well (and apologies in advance for my terrible attempt at rendering dialect):

"I fought it was nuffin', but then I went to the doctor an' she said it weren't "nuffin'"."

@Jamie

Tangentially, I find this one an odd thing even for prescriptivists to get huffy about because it's perfectly possible to read that phrase in a way that complies with the rule they're trying to assert. It's only 'wrong' if you complete the thought as 'ten items or less items than that'. But you can equally read it as 'ten items or less stuff than that', which is unimpeachable by any standard.


Indeed. I'm pretty sure it's even entirely correct if you read it as "Ten items or (less than ten) items". It is perfectly grammatical (even under less/fewer) to say "less than ten" to mean "a number smaller than ten" and, therefore, perfectly grammatical to say "less than ten items" to mean "a number of items smaller than ten".

The one that *really* bugs me is people who insist that you should say "fewer than ten days" when talking about periods of time below ten days in length. Time most definitely *is* uncountable, and it is absurd to suggest that "any length of time not exceeding ten days" should be phrased as "fewer than ten days" - that would imply an *exact, integer number* of days.

t's a little bit like my geography teacher at school telling us off for saying that 'a megalopolis is when several neighbouring cities grow together into a single very large urban area'. She found it annoying because she interpreted 'is' as '=' and therefore felt that it ought to be followed by a noun. But 'is' also means 'exists' and if you read the sentence in that way there's nothing to complain about.


For what it's worth, this is roughly the kind of perverse non-logic I was using in my "couldn't care less means care the most" argument.

People who have complaints like these are not really complaining about the 'correctness' of the text itself. They're really using the text as an excuse to make unjustified negative (by their own standards) assumptions about the author of the text.


Precisely.
Sunnyskywalker at 23:32 on 2014-08-04
There are dialects where "I forgot it at home" is unacceptable? Hey, I learned something new! This is a normal and even fairly common in California, in my experience. I'm pretty sure I've heard some people from the East Coast say it too. "Where's your backpack?" "Oops, I forgot it at home." It doesn't even strike me as especially formal. Not the absolute most formal register, maybe, but not the lowest by any stretch either. (Not that the formal and mid-level registers are all that far apart around here anyway...) Also, now I'm curious how this developed in US English and South African English but not British English. Dutch and German influence, maybe? Do those languages have a similar construction?

The less/fewer thing for time baffles me, because the obvious implied word there is "time," which goes perfectly well with "less." As in, "six hours or less [time than that]." No reason for even prescriptivists to get huffy, one would think. Except the ones who haven't thought it through any more than the people they accuse of not thinking it through, or the ones who have some objection to ever abbreviating phrases and just leaving things implied, in which case I don't know how they speak at all.

For what it's worth, in my experience people do mis-hear some things, like "could of" for "could've" (which do sound pretty much the same here, with only a very slight stress difference to distinguish them). They then both say and write it as "could of" not because they are too stupid to know the difference if they think about it for two seconds (I've seen plenty of bright people write things like this), but because they are busy thinking about other things that actually matter to them. I don't know whether "could care less" actually is analagous to "could of," but I don't think offering it as a hypothesis means you have to think people are too stupid to parse it "correctly," just that you think they are not giving the matter their full attention because they have made different choices about allocating their focus and, well, could/n't care less about the matter ;-)
Sunnyskywalker at 23:39 on 2014-08-04
Oh, and there's also the "learning by imitating" factor. If you see your smart friends saying "could care less" and writing "could of" or "tow the line," even if you do think, "huh, that seems odd," "...but I guess it's one of those idiomatic things that doesn't make sense which they picked up on before I did" is a perfectly reasonable corollary. Because it's not like English has any shortage of things that just plain don't make sense anymore after centuries of lost context and mashing about. If you're not the kind of language geek who likes to know where odd phrases come from, writing it off as "one of those things" and never worrying about it again seems like a logical enough decision to me.
Dan H at 11:02 on 2014-08-05
There are dialects where "I forgot it at home" is unacceptable? Hey, I learned something new!


I'm *pretty sure* based on a small straw poll of my colleagues, that it's incorrect/non-standard in British English (everybody I've tried it on sounds really confused). Of course there's always a possibility that I'm just unfamiliar with the phrase and am projecting that onto my students (I semi-seriously suspect that a lot of language "rules" start exactly this way - some teacher has an idiosyncratic understanding of correct usage, and this propagates throughout the population over a decade or so as their students go around "correcting" other people).

For what it's worth, in my experience people do mis-hear some things, like "could of" for "could've"


That's very true, but again the ngram data for the two looks very different.

I also think there's quite a big difference between "could of", "tow the line" and "could care less" because I think the non-standard/deprecated usages come from very different places (although I am, of course, not really basing this on much evidence).

I suspect that "tow the line" comes from the fact that, as you observe, a lot of British idioms don't make much sense anyway and so people who hear the phrase spoken basically have to pick a homophone at random (indeed you could reasonably argue that "tow the line" makes a lot *more* sense and even - if you are averse to using nouns as verbs - constitutes "better" English). There is basically no way you can correct this yourself because the whole idiom is a set phrase and its conventions have to be learned arbitrarily. You could almost see it as a pure spelling issue, since somebody who says "to(e/w) the line" means "to(e/w) the line" not "drag the line behind you" or "poke the line with your feet."

"Could of" is slightly more complicated. I don't think this one *is* a spelling error, in that I think people who use it definitely intend to write "could of" and not "could have" (they are, in my experience, usually perfectly capable of writing the word "have" in other contexts, and nobody I know ever says or writes "I of got a lovely bunch of coconuts"). So I think these people have, in essence, internalized a rule which says that the correct way to express possibility or counterfactual obligation is with the construction "could of" or "should of".

I would agree that this variant almost certainly comes from the fact that "could've" and "should've" sound almost identical to "could of" and "should of" in many accents, but I think it is different from the "tow the line" example in that it seems to represent a genuine divergent grammar.

Finally, I think "could care less" is different again. Unlike "tow/toe" the line "couldn't care less" isn't an arbitrary set phrase with a meaning wholly unique unto itself, and unlike "could of" people who say "could care less" don't exhibit a consistent pattern of saying "could" instead of "couldn't". The most plausible explanation of "could care less" (for me) is simply that "could care less" and "couldn't care less" come from two sets of related phrases, one hyperbolic and one understated.

So "couldn't care less" is related to "couldn't eat another bite", "couldn't agree more", "couldn't have liked it more" and "couldn't be happier". All of which, I would argue, roughly mean "my feelings incline strongly in the direction indicated" but none of which, I would also argue, constitute literal claims about your absolute capacity or your capacity relative to other people.

Conversely "could care less" is related to "could have been worse", "could be better", "could take another cup of coffee" "could be persuaded", and so on. There is less commonality between these phrases, and their meanings sometimes vary depending on tone and emphasis ("it could have been worse", for example, could be used to mean that something was very bad but you are trying to make light of it, or that something was pretty good but you are trying to underplay it).
Jamie Johnston at 12:20 on 2014-08-17
On the subject of attempts to verbalize the extent to which one does or does not care, I've just heard someone out in the street shouting, 'I don't give two monkeys'.
Cheriola at 14:52 on 2014-09-12
I have tried to read this article and follow the conversation in the comments, but have found myself unable to. All you've achieved is to confuse me and make me more insecure about my use of English language, because I'm in exactly the same boat as Tamara.

I've always thought "I couldn't care less" was an idiom specifically used to express dismissiveness and slight insult, not any literal quantification of levels of caring. I.e. "I don't care about football" just means it doesn't interest me. It's not a value statement, though, just my personal taste. While "I couldn't care less about the opinions of this bigot" means that I don't think his opinions are worth listening to or could ever hypothetically be worth anything, so no-one should take an interest in them and I know I should strive not to let them bother me. But of course I care, since they piss me off. I've always used the expression to indicate a negative value judgement, to be intentionally dismissive of some topic.
Someone using that or any other idiom "wrong" always ticked me off a little, because if I as a foreigner can put in the hard work of memorising idioms and their colloquial connotations and non-obvious and non-grammatical meanings, then a native speaker not bothering to get it right just seems lazy at best, or at worst intentionally mean to people like me. Like you're moving the goal posts to make it harder for me to understand. But rationally I know that, at this point, "I could care less" is used widely enough that it's becoming an idiom in its own right. So whatever.

Also, if I'm using the world "literally", I usually mean to indicate that what I'm saying is NOT meant figuratively or (much of) a hyperbole, especially if I think it would be interpreted figuratively without the indicator. Like when I use the phrase "I literally spent the latter half of this book shouting X at it every few pages." That maybe doesn't mean I was really shouting out loud all the time (though I probably did that a few times), but it does mean that the content pissed me off so much that I couldn't get it out of my head and that I was angered anew by something on average every half-dozen pages or so.
But now after reading your discussion (or trying to - I gave up half-way through), I worry that no-one else is using "literally" that way, and that my meaning is constantly being misinterpreted. :\


Also, I agree with Arthur, Standard English really is necessary for foreigners to have at least one generally agreed-upon way to communicate. Not just with native speakers, but more importantly with each other. Don't forget that English is the current lingua franca for international tourism and the natural sciences. The reason English class is mandatory in all German schools from 5th grade all the way to the local equivalent of A Levels (you can't drop the subject out of your schedule like you can your second foreign language before starting your A Level classes), is that no matter if you study in the humanities or natural sciences or whatever, you will need at least semi-fluent English to communicate with your peers around the world. There were even special "English for X" courses offered in my university, to refresh grammer, teach some specialised vocabulary (but really not much of that), and increase fluency to the point of being able to hold a presentation in English. All the papers we had to read for seminars were in English, too, and that was most of what we read after the first 2 years of basic courses, because the textbooks just couldn't keep up with the pace of new discovery in the field, nevermind the translated German editions of the textbooks. Of course the English used in these papers was a somewhat simplified version of Standard English, because of the need for clear sentence structures not prone to vague or multiple interpretations, and because they would normally not have been written by native speakers. I was even taught that it is good form in that context to keep it to just one comma per sentence (which would indicate that you think your readers are undereducated or slow, if you did it in my native German, hence my tendency to write run-on sentences even in English - sorry) and to avoid colloquialisms and idioms at all costs. Because it wouldn't be fair to make your paper harder to understand than it needs to be, on the language level, especially since there are a lot of countries that can't afford to give out free English lessons to every kid for 8-9 years.

Robinson L at 18:02 on 2014-11-24
I won't go into most of the stuff here, because frankly, I don't give a damn. (That's actually not true; to be scrupulously accurate, I just don't give enough of a damn to bother lining up my thoughts, let alone typing them out.)

I will admit to having something of a bugbear about the use of the word "lead" on the internet - specifically as past tense as well as present tense, like the word "read." So you'll have people saying "lead" when they meant to say "led." Not sure how much this is related to the stuff you're talking about in the article, other than to that I find it an irritating (mis)use of language.

Also, when people write about the "nineteen-ninetyies" (which is what 1990ies looks like if you spell it out).

Of course, if English is your second language, that's another story - heaven knows, it's confusing enough for us native speakers (so don't feel too badly, Cheriola).

Dan H: Currently we have a situation where it is considered actively prestigious to be ignorant of non-standard usages, such that people actively *overstate* their inability to understand non-standard use of language.

We have a similar situation in the US mainstream in regards to being ignorant of languages other than English, despite it being 1) terribly useful and 2) only frickin' polite. (I haven't read this book but from the description it looks like a close cousin to this conversation.
Orion at 13:08 on 2015-03-06
While we're doing abbreviations for decades: How on earth did we decide on "1990's" for the standard english construction? It's neither a possessive nor a contraction. I genuinely don't understand why the apostrophe is there. I *think* it's a convention against mixing letters with numbers, but honestly 1990s doesn't bother me at all.
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