I learned long ago that, if you want to express how little something means to you, the correct expression is, “I couldn’t care less” (as when you’re confronted with information like this: “Hey, Anthony, your ex-girlfriend is about to marry your soon-to-be ex-best friend!”).
Too often, though, people mistakenly answer, “I could care less.”
What a difference a “not” makes.
If you “could care less,” that means you do care—either a lot or at least a little bit; otherwise you wouldn’t be able to decrease your concern and care less. Saying “I could care less” defeats the purpose of your seeming nonchalance in the face of whatever outrage you want to pretend doesn’t affect you in the least—because you’re actually saying that it does affect you. (Of course, “I couldn’t care less” may merely mask—or probably does mask—the fact that you do care, but at least it preserves your dignity.)
We are all prone to use this incorrect “could care less” retort. Who knows why? (Because “couldn’t care less” is a grammatical construction that’s hard for us to get our heads around? Because we’ve heard “could care less” so many times that we think it’s correct? Because we couldn’t care less about the proper phrasing?)
One of the ways I trained myself to say “I couldn’t care less” was to add a redundant but helpful preposition to the expression. In reply to reports like, “Hey, Anthony, everybody in school thinks you’re a stupid dumb pedant,” I would say, “I couldn’t care less—unless I cared more” (i.e., the only way it would be possible for me to give a damn is if I gave a damn in the first place). Not the greatest mnemonic, perhaps, but it helped me.
Try it yourself. I think you’ll find that, besides keeping you grammatically on track, it makes you sound oh-so-much wittier than if you merely said, “I couldn’t care less” (and oh-so-much more grammatically correct than if you said, “I could care less”).
Along these same lines, most people also mistakenly answer incorrectly when asked, “Do you mind …” (“Do you mind if I have the last piece of pie?” “Do you mind if I take cuts?” “Do you mind if I marry your daughter?”).
Now, if you don’t mind, you could answer, “I couldn’t care less,” but that’s a bit rude, wouldn’t you say? Most of the time, when people ask others, “Do you mind …,” it’s often with the understanding (or anticipation) that the other will grant permission. It’s a polite (sometimes perfunctory) way of asking, and it usually gets a polite (often perfunctory) response.
Because people usually want to accommodate their requestor, they’re happy to indicate that they don’t mind. Unfortunately, the answer they frequently give means just the opposite. To be agreeable, they’ll say, “Yes”—when their answer ought to be “No”: “No, I don’t mind.” If they answer, “Yes,” they’re effectively saying, “As a matter of fact, I do mind,” which is probably not their intention (except maybe in the matter of marrying the daughter). I’ll grant you, the “no” response probably seems counter-intuitive, since “yes” is what normally implies agreement—but not in this construction.
Next mistake: I have lectured you before about “feeling well”—taking pains to explain that, when it comes to the senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling), good and well work differently.
A quick cheat-sheet/refresher course:
“I feel good” = I am healthy; I am not sick—in other words, I am well.
“I feel well” = I have a superior sense of touch.
“I see well” = My vision is 20/20.
“I see good” = I find beneficence wherever I look.
“I hear well” = My hearing is 20/20 (or whatever the aural equivalent of 20/20 vision is).
“I hear good” = My ears pick up the sound of noble deeds.
“I smell well” = My olfactory senses are superlative.
“I smell good” = I just took a bath.
“I taste well” = (admittedly an unusual construction) I can distinguish between many flavors.
“I taste good” = Not only am I edible, I’m delicious!
The same goes for “bad” and “badly,” the antonyms of “good” and “well.” Here they are, in reverse order:
“I taste bad” = You won’t enjoy eating me.
“I taste badly” = I can’t distinguish between salt and sweet, for example.
“I smell badly” = Did somebody pass gas? I didn’t notice.
“I smell bad” = I need a bath.
“I hear badly” = Come again?
“I hear bad” = People are saying nasty things.
“I see badly” = Where did I put my glasses?
“I see bad” = Everywhere I look, there are images of nastiness.
“I feel badly” = I can’t tell whether this fabric is rough or smooth.
“I feel bad” = I’m really very sorry about something.
Clear? Okay, then, I can proceed.
In November, when the news came out that Michael Flynn had pled (pleaded?—that’s another essay) guilty to lying to the FBI, President Trump expressed regret about Flynn’s fate, saying “I feel badly.” This failure to be able to determine tactile sensations might make a certain amount of sense, since the president is not known to be a “touchy-feely” kind of guy. But we all know by now (if we didn’t know before I went through that big long process above) that Mr. Trump misspoke. What he meant to say is that he feels bad about Michael Flynn.
Now, perhaps the preceding is an unfair example because it judges a spoken comment rather than a written one, and we all tend to be less precise when we speak. Additionally, maybe I should stop caring about people “feeling badly” (just as my wife claims I should give up grinding my teeth every time I hear someone use impact as a verb—it’s a losing/lost battle, she insists; but I’ll never surrender, even though my teeth may soon become useless stumps!); after all, I—like everybody else—tell people to “take it easy,” a grammatical error, since the adverb form is needed: it should be “take it easily” (which, I’m told, is how Henry James wrote it; I would know that if I read a lot of Henry James but I read only The Ambassadors in college because they made me and The Turn of the Screw when I was 13 because I hoped it would explain the ambiguous ending of THE INNOCENTS , the film version of the novella … it didn’t). Too many people whom I know are always telling me that they feel well when they’re not sick and that they feel badly when something unfortunate happens—and I can even hear “impact” as a verb in NPR promos! “Language changes; get over it!” How I wish I could care less.
Last example, and then I’ll leave you alone (and give my poor proofreaders a rest; thanks, guys and gals).
Even when you’re speaking, especially if you’re a politician, you should strive to be clear to avoid misunderstanding and/or misinterpretation.
On CBS’s FACE THE NATION, Sunday, December 10, 2017, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said she supported the right of women accusing President Trump of sexual improprieties to speak out, though she didn’t phrase it in the most elegant way:
“Well, I mean, you know, the same thing, is women who accuse anyone should be heard. They should be heard, and they should be dealt with. And I think we heard from them prior to the election. And I think any woman who has felt violated or felt mistreated in any way, they have every right to speak up.”
Admittedly, the preceding is bereft of tone, timber, eye contact, and hand gestures, all of which contribute to getting a person’s meaning across. All we’re left with are the words on the page. And, when we have only the words, we have to make sure that they reflect the tenor we’re striving for.
I didn’t hear Haley say these sentences. I only read them in newspapers and online. And the portion that the papers most frequently excerpted for their articles was this: “They should be heard, and they should be dealt with.” And therein lies the problem, at least to my way of thinking. The first “they” refers to the women—“they should be heard.” Fine. But what does the second “they” refer to? Is it the accusations—or the women themselves that “should be dealt with”? If it’s the women, then the entire enterprise sounds somewhat sinister. It doesn’t help that Haley chooses a passive construction (“they should be dealt with”) instead of an active one (“we/the government/the justice system should deal with these problems”). Of course, if she meant the women and not the accusations, then neither the passive nor active construction is particularly “constructive.” (In case I have to spell it out, it sounds as if she’s suggesting that somebody should get rid of these women!)
Admittedly, if Ambassador Haley were editing these extemporaneous remarks for publication, she might very well revise them for clarity.
Do you think I’m being overly sensitive? (Would I be rude if I say, “I couldn’t care less”? Do you mind?)
Thank you, and good day.
Anthony Ambrogio, firstname.lastname@example.org