According to eminent linguist and negative polarity expert John Lawler,
*They don't care less.
is an ungrammatical sentence. Even though I'm a carefree user of idioms like "I could care less", I agree with John's judgment about "don't care less." However, there's some evidence that John and I are both behind the stylistic curve on this one. The editor of Cosmopolitan, no less, has been quoted in the New York Times expressing a contrary opinion.
Well, not exactly. Kate White didn't make any meta-comments, she just used the expression in giving a quote to David Colman for his article "Gay or Straight? Hard to Tell". And she used the (generic) second person, not the third person plural. And she puts it in a conditional clause, which makes a difference. But I think it's still pretty good evidence that the Care Less Train has left the station without us:
"Have I been called gay a gazillion times?" said Robert Vonderheide, a straight man who is a sales representative for a several clothing lines in New York. "Yes. Do I give a damn? No." He added, though, that it does not happen as much lately, as he sees less difference between gay and straight men in terms of how they express masculinity outside the bedroom.
"If you don't care less, it just adds to your appeal now," said Kate White, the editor of Cosmopolitan. She pointed out that Seth, the sensitive, moody character played by Adam Brody on "The O.C.," who is constantly razzed by the straight jocks on the show for seeming gay, has become the surprise heartthrob among viewers. [emphasis added]
In fact, Ms. White's usage is entirely in keeping with John Lawler's Negation by Association theory, discussed and linked here. On this view, "care less" is becoming an emphatic negative form of "care", sometimes used with an explicit negative morpheme, and sometimes carrying the burden of negation all by itself.
And in keeping with my recent policy of assembling a topical index to Language Log, one topic at a time, here's the rest of our Care Less Archive...
Negated or not (Chris Potts)
Why are negations so easy to fail to miss? (Mark Liberman)
Lederer should care less (Eric Bakovic)
Caring less with stress (Mark Liberman)
Still on the hook (Eric Bakovic)
Could care less occurs more (Mark Liberman)
Negation by association (Mark Liberman)
Speaking sarcastically (Mark Liberman)
(Auto)biography of a blog thread (Eric Bakovic)
Most of the people in the world could care less (Mark Liberman)
Caring less all the time: A variant of the etymological fallacy, and some cautious notes about the pragmatics-phonetics connection (Arnold Zwicky)
Wrong for so long (Mark Liberman)
The future of the history of usage (Mark Liberman)
[NYT reference from Tim MacDonald]Posted by Mark Liberman at June 20, 2005 05:50 PM