July 13, 2004

Negation by Association

Since I just 'fessed up to being a could care less speaker, I'm happy to learn from reader Lisa Davidson that Senator John Kerry came out as one too, in his 60 Minutes interview on Sunday:

Is the Democratic presidential candidate worried about being upstaged by his running mate?

"I could care less," says Kerry. "Look, this is about issues. It's about Americans; it's about problems. If he does a great job of going out, which I know he will, this is why I chose him - because I wanted the best person and I think he's the best."

Lisa added:

I saw this interview tonight (in fact, I have it on tape), and he definitely wasn't being sarcastic or ironic. He just used the wrong phrase.

Excuse me? The wrong phrase? Us carelessians believe that there are times when no other phrase will do.

Just to keep our coverage fair and balanced, I need to point out that President George W. Bush is also a could care less speaker:

(link) I don't care whether you're a Republican or a Democrat, or could care less about political party, you have an obligation to America.

John Kerry and George W. Bush are a bit older than I am, but none of us is a teenager. And I don't think any of us is being sarcastic when we say that we could care less.

Continuing my search through the LDC's archives of conversational speech transcripts, I've started to get a glimmer of what's really going on here. Consider these examples:

... they were just most of them -- were really just looking for money, and you know they didn't care less about the person ...
... a rocket up on Mars? I don't know about you, but I know -- why would I want to live up on Mars? Why would I -- uh why would I care less?

For many people, I think that "care less" has come to be an emphatic form of care, with a tinge of polarity about it -- something like "give a damn". Google finds plenty of other evidence:

(link) He was not a show cat, but I didn't care less about it.
(link) Who will win!? Do you care less?!
(link) What on earth was going on, and why should I care less anyway?

And in other cases, it seems that care less has just come to mean "not care", incorporating the negative even without a could around:

(link) Marcus Wilkins a player with ability but a player who cares less and just wants the paycheck..
(link) Michelle lives in an apartment who can barely afford to pay rent, who also lives with a druggie room mate who cares less about her, and her boyfriend abuses Michelle and she's afraid to break up with him.
(link) The same as my wife (an artist who cares less about motorcars and the like) can start her car and drive around happily, everybody could be able to install Amaya (or any other program) without worrying about the
PC internals.

And it looks like John Lawler has picked up on this, some time ago. He calls it "negation by association":

Like could care less, give a damn is a Negative Polarity Item, that is, a phrase that is ordinarily used only within the scope of semantic negation of some kind (not, never, only, rarely, few, etc.). Hence the perceived strangeness of They could give a damn, which has no overt negative, but means the same thing as the same phrase with a negative. I.e, the business manager was saying that his members couldn't give a damn.

Give a damn is a member of the open Minimal Direct Object class of NPI's, like lift a finger, drink a drop, do a thing, eat a bite, etc. The implication of all of them is that, if one can't even Verb a Minimal Direct Object, why, then, one couldn't Verb any Direct Object at all. Thus it's an idiomatic intensification of a negative. But it does usually require a negative to intensify.

However, there apparently is such a thing as negation by association. Like what happened to French pas from ne...pas, which is now usable as a negative in its own right, from long association in the discontinuous morpheme with the overt negative ne, give a damn and could care less have, in American usage at least, come to have their own quasi-independent negative force.

Give a damn has been used independently of negatives for at least 25 years in America. I published a paper (J. Lawler, Ample Negatives, in Papers from the Tenth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS 10)) in 1974 that remarked on this topic, among other negative phenomena.

This makes a lot more sense than Pinker's sarcastic teenage intonation theory. Which I will still test empirically, because the intonation part is fun, even if at this point you could care less about care less.

[Update: David Beaver wrote to point out that the alt.usage.english FAQ has an entry for could care less, just in case you could still care for more, ]

[Update 7/14/2004: Jonathan Mayhew writes:

"I (could) couldn't care less" in Spanish is "no me importa un comino" OR "Me importa un comino." Both seem eminently logical to me. "It makes no more difference to me than a cumin seed," or "It makes as much difference to me as a cumin seed." Possibly something like this is going on in English. I can see someone saying "He gives a damn about his workers" to mean "He doesn't give a damn about his workers." That would confirm your analysis.

The Spanish case is similar, in that it's another example of what John Lawler called "minimal direct object" intensification of negation. It's a bit different, in that the literal meanings of the positive version ("it matters (only) a cumin seed") and the negative version ("it doesn't matter (even) a cumin seed") are not pragmatically very far away from one another.

The "give a damn" case is tricky, since one common colloquial generalization is that it's a positive intensive form -- as in the public service ad campaign of that name -- rather than generalization via "negation by association", as in Jonathan's example. I do agree with Jonathan that I sometimes hear "he gives a damn about ..." used to mean "he doesn't give a damn about...", though I can't locate any examples. And there's no question that "could give a damn" is used to mean "doesn't care at all".

As John Lawler pointed out, the traditional poster child for "negation by assocation" is French "ne...pas", where the historical sequence is (spelling aside) "je ne sais", "je ne sais pas", "je sais pas", all as ways to say "I don't know". Literally, "I not know", "I not know (a) step", "I know (a) step". Not that "pas" has meant "step" in this construction for quite a few centuries. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 13, 2004 09:28 PM