Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Ignorance Is Strength

A teacher -- a teacher -- was quoted thusly in a story on cursive writing:

"Cursive -- that is so low on the priority list, we really could care less."

They could care less. Really! Just as literally allegedly can mean "not at all literally," could allegedly sometimes means "couldn't." Spare me the made-up rationalizations ("I could care less, but I don't!"); sometimes an error is just an error. People type "Saudia Arabia" when they mean "Saudi Arabia," they say "sherbert" when they mean "sherbet," and they say "could care less" when they mean "couldn't care less."


MuPu said...

It seems to show up in speech more than in print, don't you think? Even your example from the Post is a quote.

Committing something to paper gives even a sloppy speaker the time to spot the error and a chance to correct it.

Does anyone know if this is a regional thing? I've heard both versions in a lot of places, but I don't know if I've heard both of them everywhere. To my ear, it's got a California ring to it.

Since it's usually spoken as a standalone phrase, it could be that it came about as an unconscious "correcting" of the awkward meter of the original expression, where a better substitute might have been "I could care more."

It's also possible that this is a contraction that went too far: I could' care less.

Girl with the Interesting Hair said...

Ack, these are both pet peeves -- saying "could care less" when the speaker couldn't and misusing "literally."

To Mupu's point, I'm afraid both are common mistakes everywhere, not limited to any particular region. It makes you wonder whether people give any thought to what comes out of their mouths.

H. Philip Aster said...

There are innumerable expressions that have taken on idiomatic meanings that seem illogical when examined with respect to the literal meaning of their constituent parts, and I think these expressions are perhaps more likely to appear in colloquial speech than print (as mupu suggests).

I think "could care less" is one of these; most speakers of this expression doubtless intend its opposite. Nevertheless, use of this increasingly pervasive idiom in this fashion is clearly an error and should be treated as such (as Bill points out).

I am not surprised, however, at the source of the error in this case: a teacher! Many of my ancestors in lineage were teachers, and frankly there wasn't a literate one in the bunch.

Bill said...

Can anyone think of an example of an illogical idiom that educated speakers tend to let slide even though its logical counterpart is also in use? I don't think "I could care less" or "literally [meaning not literally]" would bother me if not for the robust good health of their literally correct opposites. On the other hand, I don't get blustery about "head over heels," because "heels over head" simply isn't something that people use for that meaning.

imjustbigboneddammit said...

"Could care less" is perfectly correct idiom. Of course it's not grammatical; what idiom is? It is pedantry to carp about this.

Bill said...

True enough about idioms, but see my previous comment. To say the opposite of what you mean when there's an equally facile expression that means what you mean is ridiculous. So I'm ridiculing.

Unknown said...

I don't think that this can be judged yet to be an idiomatic expression. There are still many people say that they couldn't care less when they couldn't. Granted, those folks seem to be in the minority these days, but I don't think that what's correct can be determined simply by looking at what's most common.

People say "could care less" because they haven't thought about it. If they did, they would say "couldn't."

jf said...

It's true that misuse of "literally" is very disheartening. On the other hand, I got a great deal of joy from a sports announcer who claimed that a player who was having a particularly good game was "literally on fire". (Note: he wasn't.)

H. Philip Aster said...

How about phrases such as "fail to miss" and "fail to ignore" that contain some obvious and some perhaps more implicit negatives, the combination of which tend to produce sentences that mean precisely the opposite of what the speaker is trying to convey? I've never failed to miss an opportunity to leave a comment on this blog, for example.

ReluctantLeftist said...

Bill's analogy with "head over heels" is an excellent one. Asking people to say "heels over head" would be asking too much, but the expression "I couldn't care less" is sitting right there, sounding natural, waiting to be used.

One of my personal annoyances is when "aggravate" is used to mean "annoy" or "irritate". Sometimes I point out that to aggravate "really" means to make more grave, or to make more serious (you can almost *see* "grave" inside "aggravate"). People might respond to my criticisms by saying "Yes, but words change. Language evolves. 'Aggravate' has now become a synonym for 'irritate' or 'annoy' for many people."

A big reason this bothers me is that there are *already* so many words that capture this newer meaning of "aggravate". Aside from "irritate" and "annoy", we've got "bother" and "vex" and "peeve". Those words are all sitting there, staring you in the face, happy to be used, just like the expression "I couldn't care less".

alienvoord said...

They're not saying the opposite of what they mean. They're saying the opposite of what you think they should say. Their meaning is clear.

Bill said...

It was clear that O'Reilly meant "loofah" when he said "falafel." Everybody get out your Flair pen and annotate your dictionaries!

alienvoord said...

You're comparing mistakes made by the odd individual to constructions used by a lot of people. "literally" as a figurative intensifier is in the American Heritage Dictionary. "I could care less" is in the American Heritage Book of English Usage. These aren't just random mistakes.

Bill said...

I'll have a more thoughtful post soon in an attempt to progress beyond the usual "You're a descriptivist/prescriptivist, nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah" debate, but can we not agree that it is possible for "a lot of people" to be mistaken? (Or is "xx million people can't be wrong" more than an ad slogan?)

alienvoord said...

At some point it stops being an error and becomes at worst nonstandard. Surely we've reached that point if it's in the dictionary and usage books.

"literally" has been used as a figurative intensifier since the 1760s. It's not the only word with two opposite meanings. It's not the only word that is used in a figurative sense. If it is wrong, how are we ever going to decide what is right?

"I could care less" and "I couldn't care less" mean the same thing. There are other pairs of phrases like this:

I guess my point is that you haven't given any evidence as to why these are wrong. You've just compared them to other mistakes, but they are very different from those other mistakes.

Unless you're just saying that they are nonstandard, which is fair enough.

Bill said...

This ad appeared at the top of my all-knowing Gmail inbox:

Stop Condescending - - Learn How To Quickly And Easily Stop Condescending

MuPu said...

Peruse is another word that takes on a full range of meanings in actual use.

1) To read carefully and thoroughly.
2) To read.
3) To skim.

The first definition is probably the original and "most correct." The other two are probably more common, though. I generally use it in the sense of the third one, but with an implied hopping about (not reading it in order), like when flipping through a magazine in a waiting room.

alienvoord said...

Bill, I really don't mean to be condescending. I honestly don't understand how you can say these things are wrong.

Bill said...

Actually I intended the comment on the Gmail ad as a self-deprecating citation. :-)

Your reply, though, strikes me as a bit disingenuous. You must recognize the difference between "wrong" in a "best practices" sense and in an anthropologically descriptive sense, right? You may not think "I ain't got no ..." is "wrong," because, after all, it is a sincere and understandable attempt to say something that millions of people use in their daily lives, but of course it is careless/ignorant/stupid.

Well, think of my definition of "wrong" as "I reserve the right to think of somebody who says [blank] as careless, ignorant or stupid [depending on the severity of the 'blank'], and I hereby assert that most right-thinking Americans will agree, so be forewarned before you say stupid stuff."

Bill said...

I was ready to grant "he doesn't know squat"/"he knows squat" as a nice example of the contrary-meaning phenomenon we're talking about, but wait a minute. There, "squat" means "nothing." A reference to not knowing squat is hyperbole, as in "he knows less than nothing." You can't know less than nothing, so knowing squat and not knowing squat are one and the same.

You'll probably point out that I would condemn "He doesn't know nothing" as a double negative, meaning the opposite of "He knows nothing," but "squat" means "nothing" in a different way -- or at least that expression is clearly intended with a wink, whereas "don't know nothing" hardly smacks of such sophistication.

But, sigh, I admit I have no "evidence."

Bill said...

I'm not a linguist, obviously, but aren't the other examples in that Language Log post (also) flawed? It seems to me it's a parlor trick to assert that something like "Can we do it?" vs. "Can't we do it?" -- stating the exact same thing from different sides of a perfectly binary situation -- illustrates anything meaningful about truly contrary constructions such as "could care less" vs. "couldn't care less."

That's not to say there aren't good examples that would force me back to my "best practices" bulwark; I just haven't seen any yet.

(I've criticized copy editors plenty. There are hacks in every field, no?)

Stephen Jones said...

"Could care less" is not used in British English, and that is the only possible reason for criticizing it.

It's best considered a 'chunk', a set phrase. The fact that its apparent opposite has the same meaning is irrelevant. Language is not mathematics and in language two negatives normally make a strong negative, not a positive.

It's informal (as is couldn't care less) but there is no good reason to condemn it or label it sub-standard (and in language matters logic is almostnever a good reason).

Unknown said...

As I've thought about this, what strikes me is that people who say "could care less" don't actually mean "couldn't care less." They think that being able to care less is an indication of indifference. In this way, it is not like "literally" or "aggravate." It's actually more like "ain't," I think. At what point do we stop the fight against ignorance?

Doug Sundseth said...

Since sportscasters have come up, I'll mention one of my "favorites": the use of "get untracked" (= derailed) to mean "get on track" (= rerailed). The facial meaning of the two phrases is opposite, but they are treated as meaning the same thing.

Other clear errors that are not opposites: "when worst comes to worst" and "hone in on". Both are used with few objections by apparently literate folks and in spite of more-correct options.

The latter of those is in the eggcorn database, IIRC, which is filled with such persistent errors of understanding.

alienvoord said...

I recognize the difference between wrong in a "best practices" sense and in a descriptive sense. But shouldn't the "best practices" be decided based on how language is actually used, not by certain people's personal preferences?

Anyway, I thought we were talking about spoken language and not edited text. "literally" and "I could care less" may be inappropriate in edited text, but how can they be "careless/ignorant/stupid" in speech? At worst they are ignorant, because the speaker may not be aware of the standard English usage. But to call them careless or stupid is to suggest that the speaker is somehow deficient in their native dialect.

Your comments on the Language Log post are interesting and you might have a point there.

Jeff Miller said...

Aren't you at all concerned about teachers who don't care if students learn to actually write with a pen or pencil? Now if it were a doctor, I'd understand.

Bill said...

Interesting comment on the content of the cursive article. I was way ahead of the curve on that -- after elementary school or so (maybe it was that seventh-grade drafting class in which I learned the block lettering!), I considered cursive, outside of signatures, to be a silly way of writing, an old-lady way of writing. It really drove me crazy when people used cursive in an obvious printing context -- filling out a form, for instance.

Bill said...

You may be kinder and more discreet than I about it, but don't we all make judgments on people's intelligence based on how they use the language? You may be writing your linguistics thesis on how "I ain't got no" is perfectly valid, and was used by Shakespeare 2,000 years before Shakespeare was even born, blah, blah, blah, but c'mon. You don't generally think someone who talks that way is all that bright.

But, yeah, there is a big difference between edited text and spoken language. To pick on a spoken "I could care less" was a rather weak peg, but that's why it's on the blog and not one of my Sharp Points.

alienvoord said...

Sure I make judgments sometimes, but I try not to, because making such judgments is a form of snobbery. It's unhelpful, hurtful, and has no basis in fact.

I was taught in public school that "I ain't got no" is wrong and that people who use it are stupid. So I understand why it is such a pervasive notion. But it's just not true.

Bill said...

Why do I have the awful feeling that you're going to go marry an illiterate now to prove a point and qualify for sainthood?

Kidding, kidding. I'm just struggling to reconcile your thoughts with your love of the brilliant and caustic "Stardust Memories" ...

Stephen Jones said...

I'll mention one of my "favorites": the use of "get untracked" (= derailed) to mean "get on track" (= rerailed)
is his not an eggcorn?

Bill said...

Untracked/"on track" would be an eggcorn all right, but ...

Can anyone shed some light for me on why the "everything's right" crowd reserves this one category of error to snicker at?

Is it that you're laughing "with" the misinformed and not "at" them?

Is it that you have a sophisticated calculus wherein if 39.9 percent of speakers and writers misunderstand something it's an eggcorn but then that one-tenth of a percentage point earns the usage a place in the dictionary as an alternate meaning?

Is it just a proprietary interest, because the term was invented by a linguist and not some stupid copy editor?

I'm trying to understand, really.

Sub said...

Margaret Atwood on Orhan Pamuk in today's Guardian: 'Sometimes his characters are almost literally torn apart by choices they don't know how to make, but are forced to make.'

I'm not sure if the 'almost' makes it better or worse.

alienvoord said...

Descriptivists are not the "everthing's right" crowd. I'm not sure who the "everything's right" crowd are.

No one laughs at eggcorns, as far as I know. They're just really interesting reshapings.

Stardust Memories is a brilliant film, isn't it? I'd give up linguistics if the alternative was losing Woody Allen's movies.

Bill said...

I was exaggerating, of course, but I'd say "Nothing at all is wrong with 'I ain't got no ...'" comes pretty close to "everything's right."

And I told you, nothing fur-bearing!

alienvoord said...

It's doesn't make sense to talk about correct grammar when comparing dialects. In standard English, "I ain't got no" is ungrammatical, but in other dialects, it is grammatical.

When you talk about "right" and "wrong" it seems to me that you're making stylistic judgments, instead of actually looking at the grammar of the dialect in question.

ReluctantLeftist said...

The whole prescriptivism/descriptivism thing is large and multifaceted, but here's a portion of my two cents on the issue.

Anyone who's contemplated language is obviously aware that, had the history of English been different (maybe more Dutch influence?), those ubiquitous red and green fruits might be known today as "appels" rather than apples, and it would then be the "-el" spelling that would be considered "correct" and listed in all the dictionaries. No deity ever appeared on a mountaintop to tell us it MUST be "apple"; the Universe has not decreed that It Is So.

There could even be an Anglophone community somewhere today where "appel" is how it's generally written. If you were from there, and spelled it "appel", it wouldn't be a careless slip-up; it would be accurately capturing how words are used by people around you. Similar remarks could be made about "I ain't got none" or "I could care less".

We're all aware of these points. But I don't think it follows that one can *never* legitimately disapprove of a particular construction. I don't think I'd go as far as Bill and use the word "stupid" in connection with "I could care less", but I understand his frustration when he refers (with a slight sneer?) to the "everything's right" crowd.

Some people at some times adopt a position which, to me, seems like nonjudgmental descriptivism taken to an extreme. If I complain about a particular usage or construction, people might tell me things like "You can't do that! Language is a living thing, man! Whatever the users of the language do in practice, you have to just accept it as the way the language is in fact used, and anyway, who are you to tell them what to say, you big meanie!"

Of course, I may be constructing a bit of a straw man there, but in any case, there's a couple of Language Log posts that stick out in my mind as good nuanced rebuttals to the "judgments are bad, no usage is ever wrong" type of descriptivism.

Can we object to, or disapprove of, some usages? Can we say some usages are incorrect? One point made in the Poser post is that in scholarly or technical contexts, one can object to certain usages if they blur useful distinctions. One point made in the Pullum post is that people can make slip-ups that they themselves, if contemplating their utterances later, might agree were errors.

I would add that not only do people produce slips of the tongue and slips of the pen, but they also can deliberately produce constructions that can *appear* sloppy or careless. When I explain why I dislike "could care less", I don't think that my criticism is lacking in content, or is nothing more than snobbery. I dislike it because it *can* appear confused, or appear like a mistake.

Perhaps what I'm trying to say in this long reply is that ideally, my type of prescriptivism is an attempt to say things like "Look, fellow members of the Anglophone community, let's try to be careful when using this language we so love. Given that 'couldn't care less' sounds just as natural as -- if not more than -- 'could care less', and has the added advantage of literally meaning what you want it to mean, are we sure that 'could care less' is what we really want to say?"

alienvoord said...

I'm certainly in favour of clear writing that is free of confusion. You're talking about stylistic judgments - which are fine, but we shouldn't elevate our personal preferences to the status of Right and Wrong laws.

I don't like talking about "right" and "wrong" because the matter of "right" and "wrong" in language is such a complex matter. Some utterances are grammatical (I hit the ball hard), some are ungrammatical (*I hit hard the ball), some are appropriate for a certain register and not for another (ain't), some are grammatical in one dialect and not in another (I ain't got no), and so on. In this view, the absolute "right" and "wrong" that prescriptivists talk about doesn't make a lot of sense. But that doesn't mean I think "everything's right." It means that in order to decide if something is grammatical or appropriate, you have to look at the facts.

I appreciate your point about disliking something because it can appear like a mistake. But in the case of "could care less"... is it ever confused? Are these two usages ("could care less" and "literally") ever misinterpreted? Does anyone read them or hear them and seriously, honestly, misunderstand?

I don't think so, but I could be wrong. Certainly people get upset at them and will judge them, which is a good enough reason to avoid them in careful writing.

Unknown said...

I've had a similar argument with friends before and I've found that I get looked at funny when I say "I couldn't care less." My theory on that is because most people say the opposite of what they meant and don't understand how (or where) they messed up. So when they hear me say it correctly, it makes them stop and think about how they've been saying it wrong all along.

ReluctantLeftist said...

I didn't mean that if somebody -- call them Pat -- says "I could care less", then they're likely to be misinterpreted. I don't believe anyone will get confused and think that Pat cares a moderate amount. But people might think, "Ah, silly old Pat got the logic of that expression muddled."

I suppose I too would probably shy away from using "right" or "wrong" to describe things like "could care less". I just like careful writing, and I'm fussy. :-)

Many good points have been made all round, and I hope the length of my previous comment wasn't too much of a breach of blog etiquette.

Chance said...

The mistypings (the adding an extra A or R here and there that doesn't affect meaning) don't bother me.

But man, those two (the misuse of literally and the idiom couldn't care less) really, really bother me. If you're going to speak a language you ought to, at least, know what the damn words mean.

Bill said...

Your long comment was excellent, RL. Sometimes we could care less. Sometimes a hot pop star is literally on fire (remember the Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial?). My lament is that now we're unable to express such things without a bunch of extra circumlocution and italicization and oomph.

??.A.D. said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
??.A.D. said...

I love this post. While many adults have problems with "I could care less," I, while a fourth grade English student, was completely freaked out by it. I asked my parents and my teacher and that cranky, old librarian, but they all just shrugged me off. "But, but, don't they mean that they couldn't care less?" I said, jumping up and down. My naturalized mother was the only person I knew who said the phrase correctly, probably because she took our idioms more literally as an ESL speaker.

"I could care less" put me in the same torment in 1982 as " cake and eat it too." That one doesn't have a logical counterpart, except I would like to introduce, " cake and smash it in your face," as one, for the next person that says it to me.

Thanks, also, Bill, for the great photo of the Tune. I found your blog because, every time I do a Google Image search for the Tune Inn to show a newbie what they are looking for, your awesome photo pops up.

??.A.D. said...

But, on another note, what do you think about the cursive issue? Recently, I learned that my friend who went to Randolf Macon, never learned cursive. She told me of the hours she spent on the same light green, dotted-lined paper we cursive writers in third grade did, but learning calligraphy. Today, she prints like the person at the bar waiting for her phone number has another two hours to wait for it. Her penmanship is slow and tedious, and she's got that left-handed thing going, too.

But, picking on my friend (idiom, whoops) aside, what do you think of the cursive thing? I'd personally never heard of a curriculum without it until a few weeks ago.

Unknown said...

My son, who is eight, goes to a Montessori program at a local public school, and the Montessori theory says that cursive is actually easier to learn than printing. As a result, he started learning cursive in pre-K and now handles it pretty well. I personally prefer cursive, even though I hate my handwriting for being dull. Cursive is faster and easier on the hand because there are fewer discreet movements. However, I do not find it either a moral or ethical black mark for a person to prefer printing. As John Lennon said, "Whatever gets you through the night is all right."

??.A.D. said...

But, what if the students without cursive in their curriculum want to be journalists? Would Bill be where he is today printing at 5 wpm?

Stephen Jones said...

but I'd say "Nothing at all is wrong with 'I ain't got no ...'" comes pretty close to "everything's right."

"I ain't got no" is sub-standard. You are confusing register, or possibly social dialect, with ungrammaticality.

The difference between "could care less" and "couldn't care less" is not one of register however; both phrases are common, have the same reason, and are informal.

The point Bill is that copy editors normnally only criticize things that are grammitically correct. That is because you are viewing the output of educated native speakers and that is normally grammitically correct by definition.

Now, no linguist would tell you that "I could less no be caring" is correct, but you are never going to come across it.

Stephen Jones said...

But, what if the students without cursive in their curriculum want to be journalists? Would Bill be where he is today printing at 5 wpm?

Cursive is no faster than non-joined up writing.

Stephen Jones said...

Here is a post by Pullum appropriately entitled "Everything is correct" versus "nothing is relevant"

Unknown said...

I'm currently editing a newsletter aimed at the railroad industry, and in trying to turn the mush given to me by the "author" into functioning English, I have had an insight into this entire "couldn't care less" question.

"Could care less," no matter how you slice it, is inexact, and when inexactness is allowed under the "we all know what they mean by that" exception, you end up with sloppy, inexact writing. And allowing sloppy, inexact writing leads to sentences like this one:

The solution to non coupler vehicle damage to cars may be as simple as educating the local industry about car moving options, locomotives and car movers and where they can be found.

This is why it is important that we hold to some sort of standards. Is "could care less" the worst sin imaginable? Of course not. It is, however, a symptom of a far greater disease. That is the disease of not saying what you mean, but just kind of, sort of, almost saying it.

alienvoord said...

I'm not sure how "could care less" is inexact, or even what inexactness has to do with constructions like this. You cannot apply logic to "could care less" or expressions like it:

I don't think the problem of unclear writing has anything to do with idiomatic constructions like this. It's to do with not having your thoughts in order. If your thoughts aren't clear, then whatever you write might not make any sense.

Unknown said...

I don't think it's idiomatic. I can remember reading the H.T. Lowe-Porter translations Thomas Mann's novels and running into literal translations of German idiomatic expressions that all ended up reading like this: "Well, that's a hat on a monkey, as the saying goes."

In something I wrote earlier today, I used the phrase "sell like hotcakes." That is an idiomatic expression. "Could care less" is simply people intending to say "couldn't care less" and not quite getting there. That's how it is inexact: It doesn't say what is intended. It's lazy and is caused by people not taking a moment to think about what they are saying. And my experience has been that once they do think about it, that people invariably begin saying "couldn't care less" instead.

And if they don't, I'll be a monkey's uncle, as the saying goes.

ReluctantLeftist said...

I think it can be both. "Could care less" is maybe both idiomatic and inexact.

Surely it counts as a "stock phrase", as a "unit" that qualifies as a commonly used expression. And we understand what people mean when they say it.

But the fact remains, the expression is ever so slightly "off" if you pause to parse it in a literal manner. That's why many people don't like it, especially when "couldn't care less" sounds so natural too.

Here's a related structure that bugs me, for similar reasons. Sometimes, if people want to deny a generalization like "All mathematicians are shy" they might say, "No, all mathematicians aren't shy".

In context, we understand what is meant. The speaker is claiming that the generalization is untrue, that there are some mathematicians who aren't shy. But the trouble is, if you go through the statement "all mathematicians aren't shy" in a word-by-word manner, it looks like a claim that EVERY mathematician FAILS to be shy, that there aren't ANY shy ones.

This may seem pedantic, and it probably is, but notice that the intended meaning could be expressed through "Not all mathematicians are shy". That's both precise and elegant. Not only does it work on a robot-like literal level, but it flows fine. "Not all" is a perfectly natural-sounding thing to say, just like "I couldn't care less" and unlike "heels over head".

LFelaco said...

aarva, the expression "have my cake and eat it too" always bugged me no end, too, till I learned that the original expression was "eat my cake and have it too," which of course makes perfect sense but somehow got turned around over the years. (There are other examples like this but I of course can't think of any others off the top of my head. Guess that's just English for ya.)

Bill said...

I overcame a problem with "have your cake and eat it too," too, though I don't see what the order has to do with it. The problem is the erroneous reading of "have" as a synonym for "eat," when in fact the intended meaning is "keep around."

LFelaco said...

There's no contradiction with having your cake and eating it too; it makes perfect sense that you have to have a cake to eat before you can eat it. Once you've eaten it, however, you no longer have any cake, and therein lies the contradiction that the phrase "have your cake and eat it too" is intended to express, hence the importance of the word order.

Bill said...

I suppose the reversed order is better, but I read "too" as meaning the two things are true at the same time. Or something.

Stephen Jones said...

"Could care less" is simply people intending to say "couldn't care less" and not quite getting there.

As usual you don't have a shred of evidence to support this.

There are two theories:
a) could care less is sarcastic and the intonation is different from couldn't care less
b)They are both colloquialisms with the same meaning and intonation pattern.

As could care less has twice as many Google hits (3,360,00) as couldn't care less (1,660,000) and as only the negative version will come from British sources, then you're suggesting that the vast majority of the American public miss out on the negative in this case and this case only?

Indeed when Liberman tried to test the sarcasm hypothesis he found that there were no examples of couldn't care less in the corpus of recordings of American conversations he was using.

Stephen Jones said...

And, we should give a quote from that well-known practicant of sloppy English, Jane Austen>
"You know nothing and you care less, as people say."
(Mansfield Park (1815), Chapter 29)

From an excellent article on the matter

Christopher Simpson said...

Two points:

I've always considered "ain't" to be perfectly fine, as long as used grammatically. It's nothing more than a contraction of "I am not" = "I amn't" which, because of our tendency to avoid the "mn" construction, morphed into "ain't." Hence, "I ain't going to the fair," is perfectly fine, but "He ain't going to the fair" is grammatically incorrect.

With that said, however, I still tell my classes not to use it because it has acquired a bad reputation.

The second point is this: aside from the manner in which he said it, does it bother anyone else that a teacher -- a teacher -- is telling us that teaching students how to write cursive is so low on the priority list that he doesn't give a damn?

Unknown said...

First, let me point out that the subject of this blog is copyediting and not linguistics. Copyediting, typically, is concerned with one particular dialect, one known as Standard English. In this case, we happen to be discussing Standard American English. And Standard English, of whatever variety, is a dialect that has to hew closer to a specific set of rules than other dialects. Why is this? It is because it is the lingua franca of American dialects. Whether I find myself in th Ozarks or on a street corner in the Bronx or on top of a mountain in Colorado, I can make myself easily understood to all the local English-speaking inhabitants because I speak Standard American English. There have been times in my life when I could only understand those around me with difficulty because of their dialects, however, I have never once had trouble being understood because of mine.

The evidence I have of what people mean when they say "could care less" comes not from a book, but from my own personal experience. I have been an American for 47 years and have been speaking English for 46 of them. When one is having a conversation with another, clues are given from a variety of sources--eyes, face, intonation--as to the precise intention behind the speaker's words. I've seen it in their eyes, in their faces, and heard it in their voices.

I have also had the experience, as has my dear wife, of pointing out the meaning of "could care less" and "couldn't care less," and their eys grow wide and the phrase "I never thought about it" always follows. And they reform.

I don't know who Liberman was or is and wish him or her no harm. However, I am an American, and I say "couldn't care less." (Actually, I usually say "couldn't possibly care less," and you should see the faces of people who say "could" when I do. You can see that, for the first time, they have actually bothered to listen to what the phrase actually means.) My wife is an American and she says "couldn't." Bill is an American, and apparently he says "couldn't." Therefore, if Liberman couldn't find a single example of it's use, we may conclude that the sample he or she was working from was limited and flawed in terms of this inquiry.

The vast majority of Americans are total ignoramues when it comes to the language they speak. You might as well be telling me that the majority of chickens pecked at "could" instead of "couldn't." From our President down to the aveage school boy or girl, it is the rare exception that can put together two coherent sentences in a row. Listen to Mr. Bush talk sometime. These are not the guardians of Standard American English.

Copyeditors and people in similar professions are. We are asked to bring clarity where disorder rules, and we cannot do that without establishing standards. That does not mean adhering blindly to a set of arbitrary notions, but to try to hold fast to rules and guidelines that help the writer to be clearer and more easily understood.

Both "could care less" and "couldn't care less" are cliches and should be avoided in written language. However, that does not mean that one cliche cannot be preferable to another. "Couldn't care less" is preferable because it says what it means. It means "I don't care," which is also about where I'm getting with this discussion.

Finally, since Jane Austen wasn't American, her usage is irrelevant to the discussion, and she isn't using "could care less" in the same sense. she is saying that the person cared less than nothing. In other words, the person couldn't care less.

Stephen Jones said...

These are not the guardians of Standard American English.

Copyeditors and people in similar professions are. We are asked to bring clarity where disorder rules, and we cannot do that without establishing standards.

It is this kind of messianic delusionism, that means you are not taken seriously.

There are standards for spelling, and to a lesser extent a certain set of flexible rules for punctuation. The standard for the language itself is not set up by people sitting around the copydesk, or emailing rants to newspapers or blogs; it is set by a lady called Norma Loquendi, and you have no more influence than any of the other speakers you arrogantly claim cannot "put together two coherent sentences in a row".

Therefore, if Liberman couldn't find a single example of it's use, we may conclude that the sample he or she was working from was limited and flawed in terms of this inquiry.

So, you hadn't bothered to read the link. Typical. Obviously the corpus is limited; it requires recording people's conversations and the only really large corpus of that is held by the CIA. Nobody is saying 'couldn't care less' is not used by Americans, just that the statistics show that even in written English it is used by less people than 'could care less'.

First, let me point out that the subject of this blog is copyediting and not linguistics.
If you were a doctor and stated you were concerned with doctoring not biology or anatomy, you would find that after a certain time you would be laughed at and left jobless (which is what happened; of course, at least the old-style doctors had soembody like Aristotle for a source, as opposed to their grammar 'maven' equivalents who only have the fourth hand version of what was thought up by self-improvement gurus in the eighteent century).

If you are a copy editor, it is your job to correct language. How do you think you can claim to be the 'guardian of language' if you ignore the study of it.

In this case, we happen to be discussing Standard American English. And Standard English, of whatever variety, is a dialect that has to hew closer to a specific set of rules than other dialects.

You're hallucinating. All dialects confirm to a specific set of rules, and in fact standard English probably 'hews looser' than others because of its huge user base.

Both "could care less" and "couldn't care less" are cliches and should be avoided in written language.

They're not cliches, they're idioms. It would be nice if as a self-appointed guardian of the language, you got your terms right every now and again. And they are generally considered informal (that is the kind of phrases we use all the time except in things like job applications or obituaries or State of the Nation speeches). Written language is often more formal than spoken, but not always.

I'll repeat what I said before; 'could care less' is standard American English, and the only reason to avoid it is that it is not used by speakers of other varieties of English.

Stephen Jones said...

==="The second point is this: aside from the manner in which he said it, does it bother anyone else that a teacher -- a teacher -- is telling us that teaching students how to write cursive is so low on the priority list that he doesn't give a damn?"---

I'm a teacher, and I totally agree. It is not much faster to write cursive than to write non-joined up, and in the present world most 'writing' is going to be done via a keyboard or voice-recognition. The only time I use handwriting now is on the whiteboard, or to jot down a telephone number (even shopping lists I type into the computer and sync with the mobile phone).

Cursive handwriting is a manual skill; unlike the multiplication tables which we still need in the age of calculators, it does not have any mental benefit.

alienvoord said...

"First, let me point out that the subject of this blog is copyediting and not linguistics."

I have no problem with copyediting. But I do have a problem with saying a certain construction or dialect is flat-out wrong in all situations, or stupid, or whatever, without providing any evidence.

"The vast majority of Americans are total ignoramues when it comes to the language they speak."

This is so completely false.

The butcher cuts the meat.
The meat cuts easily.

Kelly adores French fabrics.
*French fabrics adore easily.

The fourth sentence is ungrammatical. No native speaker would produce it. All English speakers no a lot about their language. It's just that this knowledge is unconsciously acquired and learned.

Linda said...

Not to turn my back on the fascinating escalation of personal attacks, but "could care less," while sloppy, doesn't bother me nearly as much as the misuse of "literally," which will never be okay.

In the case of "literally," something is most definitely lost when it is misused and that misuse becomes accepted. People who misuse "literally" are misusing it, I think, because they have heard it used properly and misunderstood what it means. They've heard someone say "He literally hit the ball a mile," and they've misunderstood the word "literally" to be a comment not on the use of the figurative expression ("hit the ball a mile"), but on the underlying sentiment ("hit the ball really far"). They're interpreting "he literally hit the ball a mile" to mean "he [I say emphatically] hit the ball far."

The problem is that the next time someone wants to say "He literally hit the ceiling," in a situation in which it means that an individual actually collided with the ceiling while throwing a tantrum, there will be no way to convey it, because the words "he literally hit the ceiling" have now been ruined, and will be understood to mean "he [I say emphatically] got angry."

"Literally" is supposed to be a comment not on the underlying sentiment, but on your use of an apparently figurative expression. It means "I am not using this apparently figurative expression figuratively." That is an enormously useful thing to be able to convey, and it seems like a loss to language to allow it to die because people can't do without another way to say "really, really."

The usefulness of "literally" as an intensifier is incompatible with its use as originally intended, because there's absolutely no way to tell which is meant in a particular context. So you cannot have both. (Unlike, say, "hopefully," which I don't fret over, because it can easily be used in both its more "correct" and its more common senses, even if occasional ambiguity is possible, because you can usually tell which is intended.) And the usefulness of "literally" as an intensifier seems to me to be enormously less than its usefulness as a comment on the non-figurative use of an otherwise figurative piece of language. Thus, I would rather preserve the latter.

alienvoord said...

I hope that no one thinks I'm attacking them personally. I certainly don't mean to.

"literally" isn't the only word with two opposite meanings. "cleave", "trim", "dust", "sanction" are some others.

If we oppose this usage of "literally" what we are really saying is that "literally" is the only word in English that we can't use figuratively.

Should we complain when people use "really" to emphasise things that are not real?

If we ever reach the point where the earlier meaning of "literally" is lost, we will still be able to convey that we mean something non-figuratively. We'll just use a different word.

Stephen Jones said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Stephen Jones said...

The usefulness of "literally" as an intensifier is incompatible with its use as originally intended, because there's absolutely no way to tell which is meant in a particular context. So you cannot have both.

Yes you can; word order

Intensifier: He literally hit the ceiling.

Literal meaning: He hit the ceiling, literally.

Linda said...

Well, you can make up a rule like that if you want to, but you'd have to figure out how to communicate it to everyone else. I don't think anyone else knows that rule, so it's not very useful. I think plenty of people who use it as an intensifier would just as happily say, "He hit the ceiling -- literally!" And I suspect that happens already.

I've never seen "really" used to mean "not really." I've never seen anyone say "He really was never there" to mean "He was there."

I don't think "literally" has two opposite meanings. I think it has a meaning and a misunderstood meaning. I think, as I said, that people who use it as an intensifier simply heard it and misunderstood what it meant. (I realize this is not a NEW misunderstanding; I don't think that makes it any less a misunderstanding.)

I'm all for flexibility in language, but not when you lose something. With "cleave," for instance, it doesn't ruin one use of the word that you use the other one. As I said, I don't see in this case how both can possibly survive. How are you to know whether "Late in the game, the tap dancer was literally on fire" means "She was, in fact, on fire" or "She was not on fire, but she sure was dancing like crazy"?

I mean, we can all make up an agreement that for one, we'll say "she was on fire, literally" and for the other, we'll say "she was literally on fire," but what's to stop people from then deciding that it's "commonly accepted" that it can go either way?

I tend to go by function, and in this case, the sloppiness has a true functional effect.

Why can't people just use one of the other gazillion intensifiers that are available?

alienvoord said...

The thing is, how are we to determine what words mean, if not by how they are used? If "literally" has been used as a figurative intensifier since the 1760s, that is one of the uses of "literally", like it or not. You don't see how both uses can possibly survive, but they have both survived for over 300 years. They can't have caused too much confusion, or else we wouldn't still have both uses.

What I meant by "really" was this:
I am really dying of thirst.
Am I dying for real? No. I am using "really" in a figurative sense. How is using "literally" in a figurative sense any different?

alienvoord said...

er, I guess I meant "over 200 years"

Linda said...

Sure, point taken. But "its" and "it's" are also constantly misused, and it doesn't mean that "its" becomes another way of saying "it is," or that "it's" becomes another way to express the possessive. A dictionary is written by human beings; the fact that a particular set of human beings decides that an error has been made enough for long enough that it's "accepted" doesn't necessary compel obedience, unless you're an organization that has decided to follow that particular dictionary as your authority.

I mean, to some degree, we're just having the "there are rules" versus "it's a living language" debate, about which I am not an absolutist, by any means. "Literally" may have been used as a figurative intensifier in certain situations for hundreds of years, but I don't think it's ever been as annoyingly ubiquitous as it is now.

Among other things, I think it leads to fuzzy-headed writing, where instead of thinking of an appropriately expressive way to say something, a cliche is used and the word "literally" is attached.

"He was literally on fire!" Well, even assuming you can use it that way, all you're doing is magnifying a cliche. Isn't there something more descriptive available? I'd argue that there almost always is.

I, personally, view "literally + cliche not meant literally" as a usage error, just as I consider "irregardless" a usage error, no matter how many people say it. But even if it weren't a usage error, it's an irritating and obnoxious tic that I'd prefer to see go away.

Linda said...

Oh, and: as for "really," as far as I know, it's never been used in the way "literally" is used, to address figurative versus literal use of language. So I don't see the parallel. There are certainly plenty of legitimate intensifiers, some of which themselves are not meant literally (!). "Totally" often doesn't mean "totally." The fact that an intensifier is commonly used when it doesn't technically apply doesn't bother me. But "literally," to me, is completely different, for all the reasons I've already discussed. "Really" is not, in my experience, used to specifically mean "not really," the way that "literally" is being used to mean "figuratively."

alienvoord said...

Sure, just because a usage is in the dictionary doesn't mean you have to use it. But it seems weird to expect everyone else to follow your linguistic habits, especially when they don't conform to general use.

"really" is used to mean "not really": "I'm really dying of thirst" means that I'm not really dying.

The reason certain people get upset at "literally" is because the only meaning these people think it should have is "not figuratively". So when it is used figuratively they object. But why is it the only word in English that we're not allowed to use figuratively? Also, "really" seems to have a similar history - it originally meant "verifiable" then later was used for emphasis. How is it different from "literally" in this respect?

I'm not sure how "literally" leads to fuzzy-headed writing. As I've said before, does anyone honestly get confused about "literally" when it is used figuratively? I'd guess no. Sure there might be a more eloquent way of expressing yourself, but that's a matter of style, it has nothing to do with whether "literally" is misused.

alienvoord said...

...and even if there is potential for confusion, the answer is simple, as Jesse Scheidlower says in the article I mentioned earlier: don't write silly-soundingly. There are all kinds of ways of sounding silly or confused in writing. Clear writing is a matter of style and appropriateness; it has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongess of the word from a linguistic point of view.

Linda said...

Well, we could do this all day, but we're not going to agree. It's not a matter of expecting everyone else to follow my habits; I think that's an obviously unfair characterization. It's a matter of something I think is sloppy usage. Undoubtedly, you have things you consider sloppy usage, and the fact that they're common doesn't mean they're not sloppy anymore.

But opinions vary, and yours is as legitimate as mine, so I'm happy to leave it there.

alienvoord said...

Linda, I'm sorry if you think that's an unfair characterization, but that's how it seemed to me. It seemed to me that you were saying no one should use a word a certain way, despite the fact that it has been used that way for hundreds of years, simply because you didn't like it - you think it's "sloppy", which is a judgment, and has nothing to do with the facts of how the word is used. Not just in edited text - there might be an argument for sometimes not using it in edited text (don't write silly-soundingly). I thought you were saying it shouldn't be used, not just in edited text, but everywhere, all the time.

It seems weird to expect everyone to stop using the word this way, when this is one of the ways the word is used.

Linda said...

Seriously, dude, it's over.

AndrewMahoney said...

There are perhaps two possible intended inferences; "I couldn't care less" may mean my capacity to care is permanently exhausted. But "I could care less" might mean I have bigger issues to concern myself with, but now that you mention it, my level concern for that is waning or in jeopardy.

Mark Baker said...

Re: Literally
I recall a textbook (several decades ago) offering the example of the "population of Atlanta is literally exploding!" The author, as a precaution, was avoiding Atlanta.

RE: Fail to miss
In my part of the country (Pacific Northwest), there was once a significant hardware and home improvement chain that, on their Web site, touted their selection and service as "unsurpassed by none." Unsurprisingly, they were out of business within a couple years.

ReluctantLeftist said...

Like with all the big debates (prescriptivism/descriptivism in language, nature vs. nurture, big government vs. small government), we're always going to have disagreements 81 blog posts later. However, I still have one point I want to try to make to Alienvoord and sympathizers.

Descriptivists sometimes decry prescriptivists for attempting to universalize their personal preferences. But are Bill and Linda and I guilty of trying to universalize our personal preferences, if we say we don't like "could care less", or "literally" as an intensifier?

I'd say we might be guilty of that if all we said was "Boo, I don't like that usage, end of story". But we're not just being snobs if there's some structure to our arguments -- if we describe exactly what it is we don't like about such usages.

Of all the meals you've ever had, or all the movies you've ever seen, did you like them all equally? No, of course not. And if we care about language, then we prefer some usages and dislike others. If we care enough, we'll probably even recommend against some usages that we dislike.

Are we being mean when we do this? Are we just attempting to turn our personal preferences into universal law? Not necessarily, especially if we attempt to explain or justify our preferences. I'm part of the linguistic community too; I get to do this!

I guess this debate will always be with us, and to be fair, I should also mention that it's simplistic to envision the debate as prescriptivism "versus" descriptivism. Probably each of us is more P than D on some issues, and more D than P on others, and there's certainly a lot of wiggle room in the middle.

Nevertheless (and I know I run the risk of getting personal here, but I'm honestly trying to increase understanding between the sides), when people stand proudly on the far D end of the spectrum, they sometimes seem, to me, to be saying "Look at how nonjudgmental and therefore good I am."

I guess it's kind of similar to how I don't really believe people if they say they like every type of music, or have never met anybody they don't like (sorry, Will Rogers).

See, "letting language evolve" doesn't mean that we just sit back and have no opinions about usages. We're all free to explain what we like and dislike about certain usages. Some recommendations will catch on, and some won't, but we're allowed to discuss usages. That's part of the evolution of language.

If we're supposed to have respect for the language as a whole, then surely that includes having respect for the individual speakers, and their right to provide structured reasons for their usage preferences.

alienvoord said...

Fair enough, ReluctantLeftist.

Mark Liberman wrote something recently that says it better than I could

Linda said...

I can't believe I'm getting dragged back into this, but... that entire piece is knocking down straw men.

What does it mean for me, or someone else, to say that using "literally" as nothing more than an intensifier is sloppy? It doesn't mean I recommend jail for people who use it that way. It means basically: (1) if you're asking me to edit, and I'm allowed to edit for style and usage, I'm going to change it; and (2) if I were instructing someone (like a young writer), I'd tell them the absolute truth -- some people accept this use of "literally" and lots of people do it, but it's inexact, tends to be part of watery and cliched constructions, and is going to be viewed by a lot of people as an error. A lot of people use it; a lot of people think it's wrong. That doesn't suggest to me that the answer is automatically one way or another.

I don't think anybody is suggesting raps on the knuckles. It's just... I consider it bad usage. It does violence to language by destroying a perfectly good word so that people can have yet another intensifier, of which we already have plenty. If other people want to exercise their discretion to use it that way, they certainly can. I will continue to exercise my discretion by considering it poor writing.

These things all involve judgment and taste. When to use commas, when antecedents are clear enough... there are plenty of things about which people disagree. I, personally, think using "literally" as an intensifier is lazy writing. It doesn't mean I hate people who use it, or that I think they are bad writers in all other ways, or anything of the sort. That's my judgment, in an area about which people disagree.

alienvoord said...

If you edit text to remove "literally" because you think the readers will view it as an error, well that might actually be a good reason to remove it. That is a matter of style and undestanding the audience.

However it seems to me that the people here are not just talking about style and understanding the audience. They are making claims about how they think language should work, as opposed to how it does work. In the case of "literally" the claim seems to be: "'literally' should not have a figurative meaning." This is what I infer from Linda's claims that it is bad usage, inexact, and does violence to the language.

But "literally" does have a figurative meaning, and since presumably well-educated writers like Twain, Fitzgerald, and Joyce have used "literally" as a figurative intensifier, I think it's reasonable to conclude that this usage is part of the language. This isn't the first word that has taken on a figurative meaning, and it won't be the last.

It's not about thinking you're better than other people, it's about recognizing that a lot of what is said about language is misinformed. Our judgments about language are often based on factors other than an understanding about how language works.

Linda said...

God, this is frustrating. Why can't we just have different opinions about whether this particular piece of usage is ugly without everything being reframed into a discussion about whether it's possible for words to be used figuratively, which is obviously not the issue?

I mean, if we're going to dance, then fine: let's dance. The literal meaning of literally is "not figuratively," no? You seem to be suggesting it be used to mean, roughly translated, "Not figuratively, figuratively speaking." That strikes me, as a writer, as utter insanity. It doesn't make any sense, and it adds nothing. The figurative expression being intensified is *already* exaggerating. "He hit the ceiling." "She was on fire." "The speech brought the house down." These are already exaggerations for effect. It's like encouraging people to say, "And I'm not exaggerating!" at the end of everything, even if they are exaggerating, because they're just exaggerating in saying they're not exaggerating. Why is that necessary? What's next? How do you convey that you are, in fact, not exaggerating? "I'm not exaggerating, literally"? When that becomes a figurative way of saying you are still exaggerating, do we move to "I'm not exaggerating, literally, really"?

I'm not suggesting the stockades for anyone, nor am I saying there's no other way to see it. But the fact that poor usage has been used by good writers doesn't mean it isn't poor usage, unless we're prepared to suggest that there is a group of writers we deem to be -- literally -- perfect.

Twain, Fitzgerald, and Joyce were indeed educated. So is Bryan Garner, who calls this use of literally "distorted beyond all recognition."

alienvoord said...

I'm sorry Linda. We're approaching this from very different perspectives, and I guess I'm not explaining myself very well. Earlier I linked to some articles that expressed it better than me.

Linda said...

You're explaining yourself fine. I simply don't agree with you, nor with your sources. It's not because you need to explain it better or provide more citations. It is a legitimate disagreement over something about which legitimate disagreement is possible. It isn't that I don't understand your argument; I do. I just don't think it holds up to scrutiny, just as you think mine doesn't. People disagree. Usage is not math, and there's a lot of room for people to write in different styles.

I don't think there is a "final word" about whether something is sloppy usage or not. I differ with authorities I respect all the time. I've been reading Bill for what now feels like an age, and I still write "email." I don't think any two writers resolve all usage issues identically, particularly when not writing for a specific publication, but simply writing as they write in their day-to-day lives.

(Your Stanford link crashed my browser, by the way.)

ReluctantLeftist said...

I must admit I liked that Liberman post too.

ReluctantLeftist said...

There was something I kind of wanted to say at one point, and Linda said it well. Using "literally" figuratively is getting a little too close to using "and I'm not exaggerating" when exaggerating, or using "and that's not a figure of speech" when something is just a figure of speech.

I actually agree with Alienvoord that it's not right to classify "could care less", or "literally"-as-intensifier, as mistakes per se. I understand the point that if they're used enough, then they are indeed part of the language. It's just that those constructions don't quite work on a strict precisian word-by-word basis, but they have close relatives that do *and* that also flow well (unlike "heels over head").

BTW, I agree with Bill on a lot of things, but I, like Linda, write "email".

K M said...

I don't like this phrase whether it's could care or couldn't care. I find it a snide and sarcastic comment. It's almost as bad as if the teacher said "Cursive sucks."

Just not very nice.

I prefer a simple "I don't care."