LINGUIST List 3.821

Sun 25 Oct 1992

Disc: Negatives

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Henry Kucera, Could[n't] care less--summary
  2. , 3.818 Negatives
  3. steven schaufele c/o elaine schaufele, evanescent negatives

Message 1: Could[n't] care less--summary

Date: Sat, 24 Oct 92 18:06:32 EDCould[n't] care less--summary
From: Henry Kucera <HENRYBROWNVM.bitnet>
Subject: Could[n't] care less--summary

 I was suprised and gratified to receive (so far) more than twenty private
responses to my query about "could[n't] care less," in addition to the postings
that appeared on Linguist. I could hardly to justice to the various
interesting opinions in a brief summary, but here are just a few of the
 most often cited observations (without attribution, in order not the
misrepresent anybody):

 1. The form "could care less" is certainly not new in American English;
people remember it going back to the 1960's, if not before.

 2. I have receive no communications about British English but did get one
about Australian English where the expression seems to occur in specific
contexts only, apparenlty as an "americanization".

 3. The most common explanations (some of which were also given in the
postings on Linguist) include: "less" as a sufficient negation; [n't] as
a phonetically "weak" element dropped; the expression as intentional irony
or sarcasm; a change that results in a less "pedantic" or--as one person said--
"cool" sounding expression & the general complex negation functions discussed
in the public postings.

 4. One speaker (born in Alabama and educated at Harvard) claims to use
both expressions interchangeably, depending on circumstances. This suggests
a "register" factor, also mentioned by others.

 5. I have also learned that the problem of correctness has been discussed
in Ann Landers' column in the past (no references). Three respondents
thought that the form without the negative was a simple mistake that gets
corrected occasionally (or should be). Only one person (a non-linguist)
said bluntly that "could care less" is just a "dumb mistake". Linguists are
a generous lot, it seems.

 Many thanks to all who responded. Henry Kucera
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: 3.818 Negatives

Date: Sat, 24 Oct 92 11:53:20 ED3.818 Negatives
From: <>
Subject: 3.818 Negatives

Just 2 quick words about the "ne expressif" of French. (1) We know
that these started centuries ago, at a time when 'ne' WAS the normal
negative marker, and (2) Many other languages have such constructions,
often using the same negative marker which they normally use (e.g.,
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: evanescent negatives

Date: Sat, 24 Oct 92 11:12:33 CDevanescent negatives
From: steven schaufele c/o elaine schaufele <AXSSCHAUICVMC.bitnet>
Subject: evanescent negatives

 A couple of possibly interesting points relevant to the discussion of the
construction 'could(n't) care less' that, as far as i can tell, haven't been
made yet.

 (1) Although this isn't true in all languages, in English as in many other
'Standard Average European' languages negative morphenes tend to be
relatively unaccented, ergo easily elided from a phonological point of view--
witness the fact that, alongside 'could care less' and 'couldn't care less',
the phrase 'could not care less' is heavily marked, at least in my judgment.

 (2) The construction 'could(n't) care less' has no competition: I have never
to my knowledge come across any English speaker (native or otherwise) use
it, with or without the negative marker on the auxiliary, to express anything
other than total disinterest. In other words, the following utterance would
strike me as definitely weird, and possibly unidiomatic:

 ??? I definitely care about acing the final; i could care less if i had done
better on the midterm.

 'might care less' might be acceptable in this context; 'would care less',
while rather marginal in my judgment, is definitely better than 'could care
less' in this context.

 My point is that, since 'could care less' serves no other function in Standard
 English, it can be appropriated as a semantic doublet for the version with the
 overt negative marker on the auxiliary.
 Steven Schaufele
 University of Illinois
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue