I Could Care Less or I Couldn't Care Less?

Q: Every time I say, “I could care less,” my husband stops me and says, “It’s ‘I couldn’t care less.'” But everyone I know says it the same way I do. Which is correct?—Anonymous

A: For years, my grandma beat “I couldn’t care less” into my head just as often as she made me eat my dinner vegetables. And just like broccoli, her grammar correction always left a bad taste in my mouth. But was she right?

When taken literally, the two phrases have opposite meanings. “I couldn’t care less” means that it’s impossible for me to care any less about the subject at hand than I already do. If I say, “I couldn’t care less about hockey,” I mean that on a scale of one to 10—with 10 suggesting that I’m the most enthusiastic hockey fan this side of Canada, and one meaning I don’t give a flip about the sport—I’m a one. I don’t care about hockey at all.

On the other hand, “I could care less” literally means “I care more than I might seem to.” If you could care less, you’re saying that you care some, which is the opposite of not caring at all.
Now, some folks will argue that “could care less” is intended to be sarcastic and therefore shouldn’t be taken literally. But it’s hard to convey that in print, so it just looks like unpolished writing.

Stick with “I couldn’t care less.”

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13 thoughts on “I Could Care Less or I Couldn't Care Less?

  1. Virginia Llorca

    I don’t think regional usage, coloquialisms, jargon, idioms, trendy contractions, (y’know) are ignorant. On the West Side of Chicago, it is not really helpful to come across sounding like a pompous academic when you are trying to have an every day type of conversation (convo). If I am in the Southern Part of my country, I sometimes feel a little hurt if the store person doesn’t say, "Y’ll come back agin now, y’hear?" (Again and now being contradictory.) This is considered ordinary folk speech and not ignorance. I use "gonna", "cuz", "y’know", and italics all the time when I write and speak. And, yeah, I already know you can’t speak Italic so don’t correct me. I was an English major at Loyola U. Chicago and an editor, copywriter at Contemporary Books for years.And I love a good etymological battle. Go Bears.

  2. Ed

    I’m fairly certain that people who say "I could care less" do so out of ignorance because those same people also say many other incorrect and ignorant things.

    I enjoy it though when I share their sentiment when they state "I could care less!" because I respond by saying, "I couldn’t."

    (fifth goddamned attempt at typing the code, which I typed correctly the first time – and which I can see clearly, so this is pissing me off and not worth the effort.)

  3. Virginia Llorca

    And, please, for the sake of all that is human or ascribes to being so, let us always try, on our own, in our own intellect, please, please, try to distinguish between a TYPO and ignorance. And let’s attempt to do this BEFORE we speak harshly, critically, or hurtfully of someone sharing our humanity. There are court cases relating to this, so it IS a big deal. Y’all. You guys.

    And typing those foggy little letters at the bottom is the hardest assignment I’ve had since my Logic final. It takes at least three tries to get it right.

  4. Virginia Llorca

    "I could care less." = Maybe I could care less but probably not since I already care so very little. Sarcasm. Facetiousness. Implication understood. Like if you said, "Do I care?" Are you expecting a reply?

    "I couldn’t care less." = My amount of care has gone as low as it possible could. Means just what it says. Neither is right nor wrong. Almost falling into idiomatic or regional usage territory here. Y’all. You guys.

  5. Nell

    I suspect this discussion is something specific to the US. As an Australian well into my sixties who has also lived in the UK I can’t think of an instance of hearing "I could care less" by anyone other than Americans.

  6. Aldene

    I’m all for irony. I realize the officially correct response is "I couldn’t care less," but I kind of like the snarkiness of the second option.

    I’m all for calling children and teenagers "kids," too; as I wanted to say to my prim and proper high school English teacher, "It’s a metaphor!"–used by Shakespeare, no less.

  7. Cruiser

    I think that people often say "I could care less" when they actually mean, "I couldn’t care less". When I hear my kids say the former my retort is, "then why wouldn’t you care less and what’s the point of telling me that you have not chosen to care less?" "I couldn’t care less" is definitive and logical as in the care-meter can’t go low enough to measure my kids’ sentiment for a given topic, situation, or what have you.

  8. G. H. Knutson

    January 18, 2011

    Thank you, Mr. Klems!

    I first heard this dopey locution when I went in the Army fifty years ago. One could argue that it’s borderline acceptable when spoken sarcastically, but why use a dumb and misleading figure of speech when a perfectly good correct one exists?

    I would sugget the phrase did not originate with someone making this contortion on purpose, but rather out of ignorance.

    Alas, like a Gresham’s Law of grammar, bad usage often drives out the good, becoming even more widespread through cluelessness of pop culture icons. viz: the grating "The Kids Are Alright."

    Sadder yet are the gratuitous misspellings by members (or worshippers) of the underclass. Titles like "Boyz n the Hood" literally revel in illiteracy.

    Welcome to the post-literate society.

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