"I could care less" is just wrong

Just a quick note about something that really annoys me from time to time. People who say “I could care less” to mean they don’t care.

I’m not being in any way anti-American, but this grammatical quirk has developed only in American-English, and is not present in British-English. I’m not just saying it’s bad-English; this phrase in particular has exactly the opposite meaning to what is intended.

Let’s assume that I don’t care about something at all. That would mean I care a zero amount about it. I could NOT care any less than zero about it. I couldn’t care less.

On the other hand, if I do care about something, then you could say that I care more than a zero amount about it. If I’m caring more than zero about it, I could care less.

So if you say “I could care less” then that means that you do care. If you mean to say that you don’t care, you need to say “I couldn’t care less”.

That concludes today’s English lesson!

Are there any nonsensical common phrases that you find annoying? Please leave a comment below.

Did you like this post? Then you may also like my new post about the misuse of the word “humble”.

UPDATE (May 2010)

29 thoughts on “"I could care less" is just wrong

  1. Oh man, so true.

    Misuse of “begging the question” gets on my nerves a bit, but the wrong sense that lots of people use it in is more consistent with the words, so I reckon we should just give it up.

  2. “My Bad” annoys me.
    Another Americanism, which i guess makes sense gramatically.
    I just think people could say “Oops” or “Sorry”!

  3. Another thing that annoys me is when people have an itch and they say they’ll “itch it”.

    If you have an itch, you scratch it, not itch it!

  4. I’m trying to keep the creeping Americanisms out of my daughters’ language. Currently the challenge is “done”. You’re not done, you’re finished!

  5. The word ‘just’ seems to get misplaced a lot recently:

    “I’m not just a clone”
    “I’m just not a clone” – to quote ‘The Streets’.

    One of these makes sense, the other is totally incorrect – and I keep hearing it in movies, tv, music and conversation.

    Let’s change the line a little:

    “I’m not just a web developer”
    “I’m just not a web developer” – much better.

    While we’re on the subject: Anyone who can’t get ‘their’, ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ right makes me want to kill.

    In fact there are several of those that annoy me: ‘to’, ‘too’ and ‘two’ or ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ for instance.

    I used to know a guy who couldn’t get ‘no’ and ‘know’ the right way around.

    And it’s ‘ASK’ not ‘AKS’…

  6. @SimianE – Your examples have different meanings, so they’re both valid.

    “I’m not just a web designer” would mean I am a web designer, and I am other things as well.

    “I’m just not a web designer” would mean I’ve tried to be a web designer, but found that it’s not for me.

  7. Yes, that’s actually my point. ;)

    I keep hearing people move the word ‘just’ as in the first example – my ‘web developer’ example mearly illustrates the point, as it’s easier to see from this that the position of the word ‘just’ gives the phrase a completely different meaning.

  8. Hi Paul,
    ‘Cheap at half the price’, well obviously it is, surely the quote should be ‘Cheap at twice the price’, it makes much more sense.
    Cheers!!! Gray

  9. Despite being a grammar/punctuation/phrase pedant myself, I think a lot of the frustrations listed here are eased by understanding the etymology. (by which I don’t mean to sound patronising)

    For example, I think ‘cheap at half the price’ originates with ‘at half the price it would be cheap, so I’m selling it for its proper value’. I’ve got a book somewhere with an explanation of its Cockney roots anyway (definitely not an Americanism). There are some great books out there which can mollify even the hardest language pedant – for example, the apparently pardoxical phrase ‘the exception that proves the rule’ makes a lot more sense when you learn that ‘prove’ used to mean ‘test’.

    With the ‘I could care less’ example – for those it frustrates, I wonder if you’re missing the nuances of it? I’ve always been fond of this variation which to my ear always has an ellipsis at the end “I could care less…” as in “…but I don’t” which has more a playfully, insouciantly sarcastic ring to it, compared with the tart British equivalent: “I couldn’t care less”.

    Whoever mentioned the ‘just’ example. YES! And it’s not new either; I remember that frustrating me from the earliest possible age (particularly when it made it into tv scripts and so on) – before I even understood why. It *just* didn’t sound right =]

    • “Of” is not used in that phrase.

      I believe it’s “shoulda’, woulda’, coulda’,”.

  10. While both comments are grammatically right, the phrase “I couldn’t care less” is the correct phrase to use when meaning that you DON’T CARE.
    I still haven’t found a viable time or place to use the phrase “I could care less” but I’ll keep looking. :)

    While we are on the subject of bad grammar:
    I bought a T-Shirt recently which I simply had to buy and wear everywhere I went.

    It says on it:
    “Everything is NOT spelt with a ‘K'”

    I despise people saying everythingK and/or anythingK.

    Where do these people get the K from?

  11. I lived through the transition from “I couldn’t care less” to “I could care less.” It went approximately like this:

    1950: I wasn’t invited. I couldn’t care less.

    1955: I wasn’t invited, as if I could care less.

    1960: I wasn’t invited, like I could care less.

    1965: I wasn’t invited. Like, I could care less.

    1970: I wasn’t invited. I could care less.

    The word-emphasis of “I could care less” gives its origins away. We say “I *couldn’t* care *less*,” but we say “I could *care less*.” The latter retains a distinct echo of the original “As if I could care less.”

    That’s the long and short of it. No sarcasm or irony or Yiddish or anything else, only the relentless dumbing down of a silly phrase as it descended from the educated classes to the slangy masses.

    By the way, the “as if” that disappeared from “as if I could care less” eventually resurfaced as a standalone expression of indifference and contempt.

    1990: I wasn’t invited. As if.

  12. My own special annoying phrase is the destruction of the third conditional by Americanspeak. The correct form is ” If I had seen her, I would have told her” however Americans say “if I would have seen her I would have told her”. Gawd nose Y!

  13. Totally agree. I actually thought that it was a typo or poor diction, similar to “could of” etc. But no! I recently discovered that this is actually another Americanism. And one that really annoys me.

  14. Using “most” to mean “almost” is another one. “Almost” means nearly. “Most” means more than 50% of. You can’t say “most all of us like it”.

  15. I could care less is just one of those slangs that formed in America. While it may not make grammatical sense out of context, it’s subtext is actually “I COULD care less… but I don’t.” It’s just sarcasm. The but I don’t part was eventually dropped because everyone knew what they meant. Or like someone else on this forum said, “As if I could care less.” Similarly “like I care” actually means I do not care at all. It’s just sarcasm. No need to tear it apart.

  16. I know, it’s always bugged me, too. I always say “I couldn’t care less”. It’s so obviously wrong, that I don’t know why it even needs to be explained, and why it still sticks.

  17. It kills me every time, especially when it’s written into TV scripts. I think I heard it repeatedly in the show “Make It or Break It”.

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