Friday, June 8, 2012

Let’s not be careless about caring less, grammatically

It is a truth universally acknowledged that grammar is important. By me, at least. And if by “universally acknowledged” you mean that all of the voices in my head are in agreement, then yes, grammar is important.

Of course there are those of who are reading this and saying, “Correct grammar? Important? Why, I could care less.”

Ah, but you’re wrong. And that’s why it’s important. Are you saying “I could care less” or “I couldn’t care less”? The answer makes a big difference.

As one popular Facebook meme reminds us, correct grammar saves lives. It’s as important as the distinction between “Let’s eat, Grandma” and “Let’s eat Grandma.” What started as a call to a meal could end up as a cannibalistic Thanksgiving dinner. This is important stuff here people!

But I couldn’t care less about Grandma (see what I did there?), so let’s get back to the matter at hand.

“I could care less” is a creepy little phrase that has not only slithered its way into our lexicon, it is actually fluffing up pillows and settling in for good unless we do something about it.

Of course, I’m up for the challenge, and my first line of attack is always my family.

My poor daughter Lily was in the passenger seat of the car discussing how someone received something at school that she didn’t get. When I asked her if it bothered her she said, “No, I could care less.”

I actually gasped.

“What?” she asked.

“You mean you couldn’t care less, right? Because the way you said it means you have more care to give. There is a level of care, and you could go lower, but for now, you’re just a bit ambivalent.”

At this point her eyes have glazed over and she’s staring out the car window and dreading that she ever said a word when I asked her how her day was.

I get that look a lot from all three family members.

But apparently the mini in-the-car grammar lesson stuck because a few days later she was sharing another story over dinner and started to say, “I could care … wait … no, I mean I couldn’t care less.”

She smiled sweetly at me across the table while I beamed. Craig rolled his eyes.

I get that look a lot too.

Michael Quinion, a British etymologist, writer, and linguistics devotee (what’s not to love?) says this on his blog World Wide Words: “The form I could care less has provoked a vast amount of comment and criticism in the past thirty years or so. Few people have had a kind word for it, and many have been vehemently opposed to it (William and Mary Morris, for example, in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, back in 1975, called it “an ignorant debasement of language”, which seems much too powerful a condemnation). Writers are less inclined to abuse it these days, perhaps because Americans have had time to get used to it.”

Americans, I beg of you, don’t get used to it.

It’s simple: The only time you would EVER say “I could care less” is if something that is happening is tolerable and only mildly irritating, and you have more care to give.

But if you’re fed up, and simply not going to take it anymore, then you want to use “I couldn’t care less.”

Go ahead. Say it out loud a few times and practice it.

See, my goal is to make you over-aware of the right phrase so that the wrong phrase will sound like nails on a chalkboard from now on. (Kids, go ask your parents what a chalk board is.)

I’m so excited for my next article, where we’ll tackle the difference between there, their and they’re. And if you don’t want to hear it, well, I couldn’t care less.

Eileen Burmeister lives, writes and corrects grammar in Winchester, Ore. She can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com or you can follow her on Twitter at EBurmeister.



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