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Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pet Peeve: I Could Care Less

No, the title doesn’t mean I don’t care about this week’s peeve. Actually, it drives me up a tree.

In fact, consider this sentence:

Lloyd could care less if Bill is dating Diane.

Okay ... Right now Lloyd cares a certain amount (but we aren’t saying how much). This is obvious because Lloyd could care less.

What’s the problem? Here’s what we mean to say:

Lloyd couldn’t care less if Bill is dating Diane.

The point is, Lloyd doesn’t care at all. There’s no way he could care less about Bill’s dating habits. You couldn’t pay Lloyd to care about it.

So why do we say “Lloyd could care less”? Because of the big grammar boogeyman: laziness.

When I was a kid, I used to hear this phrase all the time: “So what? I couldn’t care less.”

I thought it was very clever at the time (well, I was a kid). But then I got puzzled because as time passed, the “n’t” disappeared. People got tired of saying the word “couldn’t.” It just had too many syllables. Oh well, they thought; we’ll just knock off one. People will still get the idea.

Sadly, when you play to the lowest common denominator, everyone follows. Together we sink into the muck of grammar confusion.

But you know what I’d say to that—I could care less. (A whole lot less.)


  1. Claire,
    That particular figure of speech and its misuse is also one of my own bugbears. It drives me mad when I hear people saying "I could care less," but I only usually hear it on American TV shows, so it looks like it's one particular bad habit that hasn't reached the shores of the UK yet. Let's hope we can keep it that way, or I won't be able to resist correcting people I overhear in the street: It annoys me THAT much.
    Another one that peeves me, which I think is also of US origin is "This is different THAN that" Surely "than" should be used for quantitive comparison, as in "bigger than", "darker than" "more beautiful than" I suggest that "different" should be expressed as "different TO", (though I know in the UK we also use "different FROM", and I'm not sure if that's correct usage or not.)
    I'd appreciate your opinion on that one.
    Congratulations on, and thanks for, a nice informative and entertaining blog site.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Dave. As for the endlessly annoying "different than" construction, I can't say that it's American in origin (though, let's face it, so many annoying things are). I will probably have to write a future Peeve of the Week on this expression. It drives me nuts. "Than" is used in comparisons, as in: "Her dress is prettier than mine." Or "My sandcastle is bigger than yours." "Different" is not a comparative adjective, so "than" just doesn't work.
    I have heard the British "different to," and though it doesn't show up in my U.S. references as correct, I think of it as more of a dialectical distinction. It doesn't violate any rules, per se, the way "than" does. I like "different from" because it implies a moving away FROM the other, making it more distinct. ("Sam's interpretation of the text is very different from Laura's."--Sam's and Laura's interpretations are miles apart.) But "different to" doesn't stick in my craw.
    Moral: If you ask for my opinion, you'll get it.

  3. I think we tend to use 'different from' and 'different to' in Britain pretty much equally.
    I agree that 'different from' does emphasize difference by 'distancing' the subjects FROM each other. I think that we use 'different to' as a subconscious abbreviation of 'different when compared TO', which does make it seem to make a little more sense.