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I couldn’t care less. I could care less. Which do you prefer?

Let me introduce the discussion by stating this will not be an exercise in old-school grammar snobbery. Frankly, I couldn’t care … wait, I could care … correction, I don’t care which you prefer. It’s really not a big deal to me (though the next 1,000 words or so may indicate otherwise; don’t believe them, they’re wrong).

However, it is something that I couldn’t get out of my head over the weekend, this push and pull between two variations of a phrase that look like they should be opposites, but in the spirit of their intent, mean the same thing; that is …

… “I don’t care, and not only do I not care, I really don’t care.”

It’s quite possible that you already really don’t care about this topic, so much so that you’ve thought or said as much to yourself using your preferred version of one of the aforementioned phrases. But if you’re hanging in there – presumably to the bitter if not apathetic end – let’s move on. (To where? God only knows, since at the writing of this piece, I was as in the dark as you are right now.)

Why these phrases (which apparently popped up around 1940, according to Merriam-Webster) have been caroming around in my brain lately is a mystery. Maybe it’s because “my team” didn’t play in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Maybe it’s because we’re going through a cold snap where I live, and therefore, I had a lack of interest in hearing about the weather in places like Arizona, Florida or Ecuador. (Not sure why I chose Ecuador, but it drives home the point nonetheless.)

Even more plausible, my “I couldn’t/could care less” button had likely been subconsciously pushed at some point last week by someone bragging about something impressive they had accomplished or acquired.

No matter. It was in there, and if your brain is anything like mine (God help you if it is), that “thing” was going to keep driving around the block with squeaky brakes and its exhaust pipe dragging until it found an open space to legally park itself.

For what it’s worth, you are that parking space.

But it’s not that easy because this mental parking space is tight, and it’s going to require some work for this phrase to squeeze in between last week’s ear worm (“Time of The Season” by the Zombies) and a radio jingle for a local window and door company, both of which I managed to switch off in recent days. (I thank you in advance for being part of today's solution.)

Most people (OK, maybe not most, probably just some) will consistently use one version or the other (that is, "couldn't care ..." or "could care ..."). And most of the time, it likely (and appropriately) goes unnoticed, with either version being accepted by the recipient, who understands the gist of the phrase. For the record, I, too, understand this and act accordingly when the phrase is spun in my presence.

But if we dig deep into the bowels (sorry, poor word choice) of either version, the phrase doesn’t refer at all to the “level” of caring; it simply says “I could” or “I couldn’t” care less (again, like I’m sensing you feel about this topic at the moment). In other words, I couldn’t care less about my family because my love for them is infinite and unconditional, and I don’t see any situation that would cause me to care less than I do.

Conversely, using the exact same example, I could care less because when it comes to my family, I couldn’t care more, so by definition, if my level of caring changed, it would have only one way to go.

Does that make sense? Because when we boil it down to pure language, it makes perfect sense. But in the scope of modern human dialogue and discourse, it’s odd to think that way about such a phrase.

“I couldn’t care less” doesn’t mean you care or don’t care. It simply means you’re not capable of reducing your level of care.

“I could care less” also doesn’t mean you care or don’t care. It simply means the only way to change your level of care is by reducing it. You see why this has been orbiting my mind for the past few days? (If not, you’re likely in the majority.)

Here’s my simple plan to rid myself of this issue: “I don’t care.”

In my mind, “I don’t care” is stronger and more to-the-point than either version of “couldn’t/could care less.”

Why? Because it’s matter of fact, dismissive and actually says “I don’t care,” something neither of the other two actually commit to.

Let’s rewind to Saturday, in a hypothetical conversation we had about Sunday’s Super Bowl.

You: “Who do you want to win the Super Bowl?”

Me: “I couldn’t/could care less who wins that damn game because the Packers aren’t playing.”

Now, one could argue that by using those words “couldn’t/could care less,” it emphasizes my apathy for the outcome. I’ll submit that those words actually show I do care because I’ve gone out of my way to use lots of words to tell you.

Let’s revisit, using “I don’t care.”

You: “Who to you want to win the Super Bowl?”

Me: “I don’t care.”

Game. Set. Match. By saying “I don’t care” (and what you didn't experience was my flat, unaffected demeanor as I delivered it -- hypothetically speaking -- followed by me immediately returning to whatever I was doing), I not only stated my lack of caring, but I also dismissed the event without emotion or equivocation. (I’m pretty sure I used “equivocation” correctly, but if not, it’s still a cool word, isn’t it?)

So, there you have it, today’s rambling about a phrase no one really, well, cares about, except for grammar snobs and people like me who keep the front door to my brain open, letting in any riffraff that stumbles onto the porch.

Now that that’s off my mind, I can get on with more important things, like wondering why British folks don’t put “the” before “hospital” or say, “Go to university” instead of “Go to college.” I’m sure in a few days I won’t care – less or more – about those things either.

© 2021 David R. Haznaw

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