Ask Language Log: more or less?

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Sridhar Srinivasan asks about an amazon.com review (emphasis added):

"…After seeing the reviews, I bought this book in new condition at a really cheap price. I couldn't be less satisfied. The book explains all details in clear detail, so that even talented high school students could understand the text. The images that accompany the text greatly reinforce the main ideas…. "

Sridhar observes that the author seems to mean "I couldn't be more satisfied", and wondered whether there's any connection between this and the idiom "I could care less", used to mean "I couldn't care less".

On the face of it, the two cases look very different. The phrase "could care less" has 4,780,000 Google hits, while "couldn't be less satisfied" has only 10. And the other nine out of ten cases are used to refer to the lowest possible level of satisfaction (e.g. "I couldn't be less satisfied without slipping into a deep depression.").

In the case of "could care less", the apparently reversed meaning has triumphed for many people, becoming simply an idiomatic way of indicating lack of concern. And there's a plausible general mechanism for the development: "negation by association".

In contrast, the reversal of meaning in "couldn't be less satisfied" was apparently an isolated slip of the brain.  Such reversals are common when negations and scalar predicates are combined, as in "Don't fail to miss this spectacular event" or "No head injury is too trivial to ignore".

This particular instance of that general type of slip is less probable than many others, since there is only one negation and one scalar element involved. Still, the general psychological mechanism is probably the same.

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11 Comments »

  1. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:51 am

    Maybe I'm falling into the exact pit, but I'm fairly sure "No head injury is to[o] trivial to ignore" says exactly what it intends to say.

  2. Kenny Easwaran said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 1:02 am

    Jean-Sébastien – this one is remarkably hard to read compositionally. Compare "No head injury is trivial enough to ignore", which says exactly what the other sentence means to say. Also compare "The pile of trash is too big to ignore". You'd never say it's too small to ignore, which is exactly what "too trivial to ignore" means. Another way to say what the sentence appears to say is "No head injury is too trivial to care about."

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 1:12 am

    …too trivial to ignore:

    Note also that (following Kai von Fintel) that this case was first discussed in Wason, P. C., and Reich, S. S., “A Verbal Illusion”, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 31 (1979): 591-97.

    Wason and Reich argue that this sentence (originally found on the wall of a British hospital) tends to be misconstrued for both semantic and pragmatic reasons.

  4. Ben Lockwood said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 3:26 am

    I once experienced a similar slip when I brought my friend a drink brimming with ice. His response: "Now it will never get cold."

  5. Indecisive said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 3:29 am

    Or perhaps the reviewer was actually wanting an obfuscatory text that even experts had difficulty deciphering, complete with confusing and unhelpful visuals. I've read enough experimental fiction to know that this isn't a complete impossibility…

  6. Peter said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 5:40 am

    It is worth noting that in Britain, Australia and elsewhere in the British Commonwealth people normally say, "I could not care less", to indicate that they do not care about something. The phrase, "I could care less", is peculiar to North American English. Those of us exposed to American televideoimperialism have been accustomed to interpreting the phrase into English.

  7. Vjatcheslav said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:41 am

    I would interpret "I could care less" as an abbreviation of "I could care less, but it is difficult to find something in that category".

  8. Janice Huth Byer said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 7:07 pm

    "No head injury is too trivial to ignore" passes for the inverse, I surmise, for Jean-Se'bastien and me, because our brains don't sense the distinction between "too trivial' and "trivial enough". In deed, in terms of concrete reference, there isn't any.

  9. John Atkinson said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 11:54 pm

    This Australian is about equally likely to say "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less". "I could not care less" sounds very posh, upper-class Brit. "I could care less" may have originated in North America (I wouldn't know), but it's widespread today.

    The way I see it is that there is more than an element of sarcasm in "ICCL" — in origin it was not "negation by association", nor is it an abbreviation as Vyatcheslav says.

  10. Ian Tindale said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    I've noticed of late that there's an awful lot of people out there on the internets that keep getting it wrong. "Couldn't care less" actually means something. "Could care less" means the opposite. Quite how things got to that situation, I'll never surmise, but it's taking up a lot of my time and energy correcting it all. Still, one must do one's bit, I suppose.

  11. Dave said,

    June 18, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

    I believe that this phrase originated from Americans (I say Americans because they are the only ones I have seen writing this) hearing someone say "I couldn't care less" and thinking that they'd said "I could care less". In Britain we have many spelling errors which have originated from the way kids talk today, as people just don't take the time to learn the English language properly anymore unfortunately. It is also not the only bit of English that has apparently changed meaning in America. Another example that I can think of off the top of my head, is when they say on aeroplanes "the plane will be taking off momentarily" which to anyone who understands the true meaning of this word would be quite a worrying statement.

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