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."


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.

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.

Leonard 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."

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.

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:

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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?)

Leonard 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.

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" ...

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.

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.

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.

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.

Leonard 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?

Leonard 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.

Leonard 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.

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."

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.

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?

Leonard 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.

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.

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.

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"

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.

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.

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.

alienvoord said...

Fair enough, ReluctantLeftist.

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

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.

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.

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."