could care less

Tony Glaser tonyglaser at MINDSPRING.COM
Wed Jan 31 02:51:46 UTC 2001

>At 11:54 PM +0000 1/30/01, Lynne Murphy wrote:
>> >
>>> >Rest assured that plenty of Americans say 'I couldn't care less', and most
>>> >(I hope all) American English teachers correct 'I could care less' when
>>> >they come across it.
>>>Why? It represents a natural and predictable reduction of a sequence
>>>/dntk/, not exactly an ordinary English sequence.
>>Well, in writing the phonological reduction is not quite relevant--we don't
>>spell phonetically in English most of the time.
>>But even in writing, the 'naturalness' of phonological reduction is not a
>>good excuse for leaving out semantically relevant information.  On this
>>logic, it would be permissible to pronounce "I could carry that" when you
>>mean "I couldn't carry it".
>>As Hans Hock was fond of saying in my historical lx class, phonological
>>reduction has to be balanced with semantic preservation, else all languages
>>would evolve toward expressing everything as "uh" (for lack of a schwa on
>>my keyboard).

Larry said: (edited)

>And I'm not sure there's ever a context in which "I
>could care less" would be uttered when it would be intended literally
rather than sarcastically.

All the technicalities are far beyond me, but at a gut level I just
don't buy the notion that when Americans say "I could care less" they
are adopting a sarcastic version of "I couldn't care less". I think
it is just said as a dismissive comment. Next time someone says it to
me I will point it out, and I'll be interested to see if they say
something along the lines of "Well, obviously, what I _really_ mean
is that I could _not_ care less" or if there is an uncomprehending
response implying "I just mean that I don't care". Not that the
speaker's interpretation of what he or she says necessarily proves
its origin at all . . . .

Tony Glaser

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