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June 15th, 2005

Could or couldn't care less / ambiguous questions / substitute with

by Barbara Wallraff

Mike McMillan, of Trenton, Mich., writes: “I’ve made a bet, and dinner at a fancy restaurant is riding on your answer to the following question: Is it proper to say ‘I could care less’ or ‘I couldn’t care less’?”

Dear Mike: “Couldn’t care less” is the proper version, as usage experts have been telling anyone who will listen for at least a quarter century. It has more tradition behind it, and makes a lot more sense, than “could care less.” But has everybody listened up? Heck, no. People keep saying and writing “could care less” when they mean they don’t care at all, or could not care less.

The experts have proposed various explanations: Maybe “could care less” is intended sarcastically. Maybe the “n’t” sound at the end of “couldn’t” dropped out of speech, because “could care” is easier to say. Maybe “I could care less” is the result of half-hearing sentences like “No one could care less.” But these are only guesses; nobody knows for sure. My own guess is that the persistence of “could care less” is just one more curveball thrown at us by the language that’s brought us “What a surprise!” meaning “I could have predicted that,” and “You don’t say” meaning “I agree with what you did say.”

David Kratz, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “I sometimes write questions that I think are ambiguous, and don’t know the best way to express what I have in mind. For example, ‘Do you like rock ’n’ roll or classical music?’ can be interpreted two ways. I might be asking whether you like either of those kinds of music, or I might be asking which of those two kinds of music you like. If I want you to choose between the two, how should I write that kind of question?”

Dear David: In some ways, speech is clearer than writing. If you asked that question aloud, the way you said it would almost certainly make clear what you meant. In writing, context -- what you said to lead into the question -- might or might not make your meaning clear. The best way I know to decide whether context will take care of the problem is to read over what you’ve written while trying to pretend you’ve never seen it before. If it will, there’s no need to belabor your point. If not -- well, I think your question to me contains its own answer. You can always revise your sentence to read: “Which do you like better, rock ’n’ roll or classical music?” (or “Do you like either rock ’n’ roll or classical?”). Because we get the chance to revise our writing, in some ways writing can be clearer than speech.

Richard S. Russell, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Please say a few words about the ghastly locution ‘substitute with.’”

Dear Richard: Gladly. I agree with you: It’s bad. When someone says, for instance, “Can I substitute the potato with a salad?” the person means “May I substitute a salad for the potato?” Blurring the meaning of “substitute,” so that it’s a synonym for “replace” and so that “substitute A with B” means the same thing as “substitute B for A,” is just asking for trouble. Anybody who does this, please stop!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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