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Getting 'care-less' with words

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

OK. Which expression is correct?

"I couldn't care less" or "I could care less."

Not knowing (or caring) for many years which version the guardians of English grammar endorse, I've tried to play it safe. I've not taken sides and have said and written it both ways.

Anyway, more or less, what difference does it make. No matter which expression is used, we know what we mean. The hint of sarcasm, the so-what attitude of indifference, should be obvious to all -- at least in America. Never mind what the British say about how we talk. Americans haven't used English in years, they claim, quoting Professor Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady."

Finally taking the time to look it up, I learned that the expression "couldn't care less" actually originated in Great Britain. Since the Brits said it first, maybe that's why they claim ownership and resent changing a word. They blame those independent American colonists for corrupting their popular expression.

How could we!

Not all Americans are bad, though, as countless advocates of good grammar remain faithful to the "couldn't contraction." It's not that we think we have to obey the Brits or our English grammar teachers. It's that many of us remember the advice of the late Ann Landers.

Back in 1960 a man wrote a letter to the newspaper columnist, asking her to settle a dispute with his girlfriend. The girlfriend was always saying she "could care less" while the boyfriend contended he "couldn't care less." Apparently it was real issue between them - one that only an adviser to the lovelorn could settle.

Landers minced no words. "Couldn't care less" was not only the preferred phrase but absolutely required. No other option. Case closed.

She also stated that the question from the reader was trivial. "This is a waste of valuable newspaper space," she wrote, "and I couldn't care less."

When twin sister Abby of the Dear Abby -- with whom she seldom agreed -- later let a "could care less" expression slip through her column, a wave of protests nearly washed away her office. Numerous readers strongly objected while Abby - oh, dear! -- was shaking her head, wondering why all of the fuss. Was it something she said? (She must not have read her sister's column.)

A few years later, William Safire, the distinguished wordsmith, attempted to put a stop to the brouhaha. He declared in the New York Times that the "could care less" version had run its course, had worn out its welcome. Revert, if you will, to the expression as it was meant to be.

Irregardless of what Safire or the British or our English teachers may tell us, the could/couldn't debate goes on.

Of course, there's no such word as irregardless, regardless of what anyone says.



Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist
"Wandering" July 8, 2015 columns

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