July 08, 2004

Lederer should care less

Talk about insult to injury ... not that I'm a big fan of kicking someone again when he's down, but Richard Lederer really just asks for it.

On the show that Lederer co-hosts on my local public radio station, people usually call in to ask questions about word and phrase origins and the like. But every once in a while, someone calls to ask about phrasing choices and pronunciation, things that might actually be interesting to the typical professional linguist. Predictably, I am often disappointed, annoyed, and/or seriously irritated at the hosts' answers to these questions. On the weekend of January 24-25, 2004, for example, someone called in with multiple interesting questions, one of which was (this is not a direct quotation):

Why do some people say I could care less instead of I couldn't care less?

Lederer's answer was that even though many people say "I could care less" -- in Lederer's estimation, roughly half of the people who use either form -- it is logically inconsistent with what those people mean to say.

(By the way, Lederer's estimation jibes pretty well with Google. Searching for the strings "could care less", "couldn't care less", and "could not care less", I got 160,000, 131,000, and 19,200 ghits, respectively. Lumping the last two together, we get something pretty damn close to a 50-50 split.)

Now why would someone in Lederer's position (Ph.D. in English and Linguistics, former English instructor, author of books on language, co-host of a public radio show on language) be so willing to think that half of the population speaks so carelessly as to not acknowledge the difference between an attitudinal statement and its negation? It seems to me that Lederer at the very least has a responsibility to the caller and the rest of his listeners to consult some relevant linguistic literature on the topic. (Calls to the show are screened well in advance, so there's no real excuse not to do this.) He does have a list of books that he consults on a regular basis, but the trained eye will note that not one of them is a book by a professional linguist or even about linguistics. Lederer wouldn't even have to meander too far from the popular language-book fodder he appears to favor; the topic at hand is discussed in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct. The relevant passage can be read here (a January 31, 1994 article in The New Republic based on Chapter 12 of said book).

Pinker's claim is that the intonational pattern of I could care less is sarcastic, not incorrect. Aside from taking into account the obvious intonational distinction between the two forms, this hypothesis has the added advantage of not insulting the intelligence of the half of the population that uses the allegedly incorrect form. (The only thing missing is independent evidence that the same intonational distinction holds of other sarcastic-nonsarcastic utterance pairs; Pinker also does not cite any sources for this claim, unlike many other claims made and discussed in the book.)

The Google search I noted above revealed that someone out there disagrees with Pinker's claim, based entirely on the fact that so many people use the allegedly incorrect form:

The "irony" explanation comes from Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct. (There could be other sources, but I've read it there.) Personally, I don't think that people mean it ironically; one hears "I could care less" far too often for that to be true. I think it's simply become a stock phrase that people use without parsing. Grammarians and purists put far more stock in "logical" usage than empiricial evidence suggests is supported by actual utterances.

Posted by: Mike Pope at July 17, 2003 06:32 PM (#link)

Mr. Pope apparently believes that sarcasm/irony should not be frequently found in speech -- perhaps because he, much like Lederer, believes that people are generally not sophisticated enough to speak sarcastically/ironically. (Yeah, right.)

But why does Pope expect hyperbole to be so common in everyday people's speech? Both of these phrases are clearly hyperbolic -- one hears them far too often for there to be that much stuff to not care less about. I'm willing to admit that many folks probably use I could care less without consciously thinking about being sarcastic/ironic, but I am also prepared to claim that just as many folks probably use I couldn't care less without consciously thinking about whether or not they could actually care less.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at July 8, 2004 08:13 PM