The number of fucks you need to not give

« previous post | next post »

Several people have directed my attention to Stuart Cantrill, "A quantitative analysis of how often Nature gives a fuck", 2/8/2015. That's Nature the magazine, not Nature-the-material-world-and-its-phenomena. In graphical form:

This reminded me of an interpretive problem in a novel that I read recently. Does the passage in bold below (from William Gibson, The Peripheral, pp. 62-63) have the appropriate number of negations, or not?

She got a beer, her phone dinging as Jimmy’s ran a tab. Took the bottle to a little round corner table, unwiped but mercifully empty, sat down, tried to look like the meanest old lady she could. Girl who’d passed her the beer had a Viz, like Macon and Edward had, a tangle like silver cobweb filling one eye socket, but you could still see the eye behind it, watching whatever the little units strung in the tangle were projecting. Hefty Mart had to scan your socket before they fabbed you one, so it would fit, and there weren’t any funny ones yet. Looked better on a black face, she thought, but most every kid here had one and it made her feel old, and more so that she thought they looked kind of stupid. It was something every year. 

“Look like you’ve come up short on the number of fucks you need to not give,” Janice said, appearing out of the crowd with a beer of her own.

“Short a few,” Flynne agreed, but no longer the oldest thing in Jimmy’s. She’d always liked Janice. She automatically looked around, because Janice and Madison weren’t usually very far apart. He was at a table with two boys, each one with a silver-tangled eye. He looked like Teddy Roosevelt, Madison, and most of what she knew about Teddy Roosevelt was that Madison looked like him. He had a mustache he trimmed but never shaved off, round titanium-wire glasses, and a moth-eaten wool cruiser vest, olive green, complicated breast pockets bristling with pens and little flashlights. 

“Want some company with it?”

“Long as it’s you,” Flynne said.


  1. LMorland said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 5:46 am

    Interesting, but I'd love to know what motivated Stuart Cantrill to search the archives of Nature, as opposed to, for example, The Atlantic.

    In any case, I searched in vain for the key to the asterisks for the first two "fucks". Perhaps it meant that the fucks were themselves "asterisked," as in "f**k"?

  2. Stan Carey said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 6:04 am

    See also: 'How many swears can we give?' on Strong Language, where Stephen Chrisomalis quantifies the hoots, damns, shits and fucks we haven't given over the years.

  3. Tanja S. said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 6:04 am

    @LMorland: I believe the asterisks are there because the first two fucks are innocent – as Cantrill explains in his post, they're just people's last names. The first one is an abbreviation of Fuckel missing the full stop.

    The negation seems fine to me, but it could just be my poor monkey brain. "You don't give a fuck" –> "You need to not give a fuck". And the greater the number of fucks you don't give, the better. I think.

  4. Stu said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 6:28 am

    @LMorland – the motivation was provided by an author recently getting the single-word sentence 'Bollocks.' into an opinion piece in Nature; it got me wondering what other swear words had appeared… it's explained at the top of the post. And as @Tanja S. correctly points out, the first two fucks were just names, rather than anyone actually swearing. I also work here (but on a different journal), so that's why Nature seemed like good source material!

  5. Bjorn said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 7:16 am

    I'm fairly sure the negations are correct in that Gibson passage. "Not giving a fuck" is of course not caring. Saying "look at all the fucks I give" while pointing to nothing is another way of saying that. "Look at all the fucks I don't give" while pointing to a bunch of things is yet another way of expressing the idea of not caring, where the number of things pointed to indicates the degree of not-caring. So, coming up short on the number of fucks that you're not giving means not displaying an insufficient degree of not-caring, which from context is clearly the intended meaning.

  6. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 7:46 am

    Bjorn: You appear to have misnegated something.

    Since giving a fuck = caring, quantity of fucks not given represents degree of not caring. (Example: "look at all these fucks I don't give" clearly is intended to say "I really, REALLY don't care".)

    So if number of fucks you're not giving is your degree of not caring, then coming up short on number of fucks not given = coming up short on degree of not-caring = caring too much.

    Whereas you said "not displaying an insufficient degree of not-caring", which means the exact opposite of what you (hopefully) intended.

  7. Bjorn said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 8:13 am

    Dammit. You're not wrong.

  8. Brad said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 8:22 am

    The insufficient negation was one to many, "not displaying an sufficient degree of not-caring" would be better.

    I read the Gibson version exactly as as @Aaron Tovio wrote it. "You look like you care too much."

  9. S Frankel said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 9:18 am

    "Number of fucks" doesn't represent degrees of not caring. It's countable, a quantity. So, coming up short on the number, means failing to not-care enough times, which is exactly right. In positive terms: caring too many times or too often, not caring too much.

  10. Dan said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    I respectfully disagree. We should first acknowledge that the current usage makes a binary distinction between giving a fuck and not giving a fuck or, alternatively, giving no fucks. In the latter case, the meaningful distinction is between giving no fucks and giving one/some/any fucks, not between giving a lot of fucks and giving a few fucks or between not giving a lot of fucks and not giving a few fucks. Even if such a distinction were to emerge (this is speculative fiction, after all), I think it would go the other way: not giving many fucks would mean that someone might give a few a fucks and therefore care a little, whereas not giving even one fuck would mean not caring at all (as it does now). By analogy, if you're not giving some task a lot of your time, it means that you might be giving it a little bit of your time. Therefore, having a low (short) number of fucks that one does not give would mean caring very little (or not at all), which I think is the opposite of the intended meaning.

  11. phspaelti said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 9:28 am

    I'm going to disagree with both sides on the question of number/misnegation.
    The original figure of speech which is well attested in languages around the world is: …not (even) a/one [worthless thing]. This is seen in for example English "not a red cent", the French negation 'pas' originally meaning 'step' so 'not one step', or German 'kein' which comes from 'ek ein' (lit. 'not one'). In all of these expressions 'not one' means none, and you can have any less than nothing. So the number cannot be either increased or decreased for emphasis.

    But for comic effect it's fine with me.

  12. Saurs said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 10:05 am

    This is a bit like when Americans say that they "could care less." The omission of "not" doesn't alter the intended meaning.

  13. KevinM said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 11:59 am

    Agree that there's an implied "even." If # given=0, then it makes equal sense to say you don't give 1, pi, -16, or a million. Expressing it as a positive quantity (ignoring the implied "even") is what creates the humor value, but I'm not getting the logic.

  14. Steve said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 12:44 pm

    I read the Gibson passage as having the right number of negations. I'm not sure about this, but I think the inclusion of "need" (coming up short on the number of fucks you need to not give) helps make clear both the intended meaning and that the sentence has the right number of negations.

    In this context, giving fucks = caring, while not giving fucks = not caring. The conceit of the line is that there is an appropriate number of fucks to not give, and, as a necessary corollary, a number of fucks-given that would be excessive. Giving too many fucks = caring too much*, thereby making oneself vulnerable and easily exploited in a dystopian Gibsonian universe (in any universe, really, but especially in that type of one). Coming up short on the number of fucks you need to not give = the number of fucks you don't give is lower than the number of fucks you need to not give = you give more fucks than you can get away with giving = you care too much.

    *Actually, I'm not sure if, by quantifying the number of fucks not-given, the idea is to scale the degree of not-caring, or to quantify the number of issues that one does not care about. (You could give a fuck about your children, but not give a fuck about your job. If a colleague thinks you should not give a fuck about either issue, the colleague could say there are not enough fucks that you do not give.). Both seem plausible. But I don't think that affects the negation/misnegation issue.

    Of course, the unstated premise, which fits with the typical expression, may really be: the number of fucks you need to give is zero, so the number of fucks you need to not give is infinite, and you've come up one short in the not-giving-fucks department, thus you give one fuck (when you should give none). This could either be a jocular acknowledgment of her friend having successfully not given at least some fucks (you've made progress in not givng fucks since the last time we met, but you still give one fuck too many), or just a mocking way of saying "you give a fuck, which is dumb" (it doesn't really matter how many fucks you don't give, you need to not give any, and you still do).

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 12:45 pm

    I agree with the people who say it's right. Flynne needs to not care about more things.

  16. Steve said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

    This made me think of an expression I first heard in my thirties: "I don't give two shits." I am familiar, of course, with not givng a shit, but wasn't sure what to make of not giving two of them. The first person I heard say this was a non-native, but quite fluent, English speaker, so I wondered if it was an ESL issue. But I've since heard it from a number of people who are native speakers, so it seems to be a fairly common variant, and certainly not an ESL peculiarity.

    I'm not sure if the use of two shits instead of one is meant to be an intensifier or a qualifier: is the idea that I do give A shit, but not TWO of them? (So, I care more than not at all, but just barely).

    But, in context, it seems to be used to mean "I don't care at all", so, either two is acting as an intensifier, or two doesn't alter the meaning at all. If it is supposed to be an intensifier, it seems like an error (consider, for example, "Not giving two red cents.")

    But then I thought that the idea may be that shit is something that I WANT to give away: it has a value below zero to me. So giving two shits would be better (for me) than giving one of them, and "not givng two shits" would mean I care so little that I wouldn't do something or devote attention to it even if it benefited me. In which case two would be an appropriate intensifier. But that seems like an overly elaborate explanation.

    Or maybe the expression is simply an intentionally ridiculous modification to the "don't give a shit" phrase.


  17. Ross Presser said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    "Don't give two shits" may have a bit of "Here's my two cents worth" in its DNA.

  18. nemryn said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 3:58 pm

    Steve: I'd take it as an intensifier. "Don't give two shits" is double "don't give a shit".

  19. Old Gobbo said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 4:55 pm

    This is a neat joke: Janice spots that Flynne is morose, not to say embittered (have not read “The Peripheral”), and points out that she, Flynne, has not adequately managed to discard all concern about things that she, Flynne, finds upsetting. There is clearly a number >0 of things to which Flynne ought to have dispensed rejection or lack of concern – or, in other words, ought to have not given about each a fuck, or she would not be sitting here so miserably and trying to look mean. This is clearly a case of number rather than degree

    Since there seems to be some disagreement about the number of negatives, I thought it might be interesting to summarize the views so far, and the following lists those who think Gibson got it right – 6 + 1/2 – and who think Gibson got it wrong – 2 + 1/2. It is pure chance, semantically, that those who think he got it right are also correct.


    Bjorn (and correctly counted – but “insufficient” should as, Brad said, read “sufficient”)
    Aaron Toivo (despite the unnecessary – because ambiguous, and not just because I don’t like it – “hopefully”)
    S. Frankel who parses the phrase correctly (times, not degree)
    Kevin M – who is one of only three people (with sphaelti and Steve) to mention that this is supposed to be (and is) funny. Seems to understand the logic while denying doing so
    Jerry M


    Steve (first post) who starts out giving a perfectly correct analysis, though the periphrasis about degree versus number only actually illustrates number (which is what the original is doing), like the rest of his post, so not very helpful. However the last paragraph gets confused: “the unstated premise …. may really be: the number of fucks you need to give is zero” contradicts the argument of his 2nd paragraph and does not really work, since one could equally well either not give a fuck or (less elegantly, and with less force) not give two fucks about some individual thing (cf. Steve’s 2nd post on shit-giving, which he seems to recognize as somewhat fanciful – and the analogy of 2 shits with 2 red cents does not work, if the cent phrase is a genuine original). This leads Steve to inverting the calculus of fuck-giving and to a conclusion at odds both with his first analysis and with the meaning of the original, particularly since there is no indication that Janice thinks Flynne is dumb or that she thinks Flynne has made progress – on the contrary, she actually sees that Flynne is pissed off.

    Dan, though understands intended meaning of original
    Phspaelti, though “and you can have any less than nothing” worries me a bit, perhaps I have misunderstood the whole paragraph. Probably understands original, as finds it funny.


    Saurs – original is not in the least like “could care less”, a phrase which in the first place is lazily illogical as generally used (though it makes a good aggressive question), unless you believe this is indeed an example of Mark Liberman’s “negation by association” (alright, John Lawler’s), and in the second place does not appear to have any negatives, unlike the sentence under discussion

    Something else

    Stan Carey, and many thanks for the Strong Language link, I loved murlough23
    L, Morland, Tanya S. and Stu – to whom many thanks for stating this in the first place.
    And my thanks to Professor Liberman for introducing me to Gibson; although I feel that this is a problem of interpretation, unless he thinks that such an interpretive problem tells us something

  20. Rubrick said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

    Jon Lajoie has some trenchant commentary on the giving and/or not giving of a fuck. (Warning: the word "fuck" appears rather a lot in this video. Really rather quite a lot.)

  21. Callum said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 5:44 pm

    Having read the sentence many times, it looks to me like a deliberate attempt at word-play on the usual formulation rather than either a standard formulation or a botched attempt.

    Ordinarily, we say that we "Don't give a fuck" or we "give zero fucks", and a literal reading of this could lead one to conclude that we must therefore be in possession of some number of fucks that we are not giving. This implication is then played on such that the character is short on that number (a greater number of not-gived fucks being better).

    The only thing that remains unclear to me is whether the character is short because they are giving too many of their fucks away, or whether they are still giving zero fucks but don't have that many fucks to not give in the first place!

  22. Chris C. said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

    Seems to me the phrase was negated properly. The number of fucks given is the inverse of the degree you care about a situation. In the passage, it seems Janice would like Flynne to not-care about whatever is bothering her; ideally, therefore, Flynne would give not a single fuck. However, she does care. Therefore, she gives some positive, but probably small ("a few"), number of fucks, so were she to withhold them (i.e. not-give additional fucks) she would achieve the desired state of mind.

  23. Chris C. said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 6:52 pm

    *proportional to, not the inverse of. I reversed the way I had intended to express the idea and didn't complete the edit.

  24. Bobbie said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

    Regardless of how many fucks Flynne has or has not given, I find it fascinating that the phrase about giving/not giving fucks has supposedly been maintained in the lexicon of a dystopian future world. The construct makes total sense to me in its context: Flynne has not yet learned to let go of all her crap; she still cares too much about some issues.

  25. D.O. said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 7:35 pm

    But the question about "Nature-the-material-world-and-its-phenomena" is even easier. Never.

  26. Sybil said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 8:20 pm

    Are we voting? in which case, I think the number of fucks was negated without ambiguity, so count me as confused.

    Nature? I'd be willing to bet never-to-rarely gives a fuck. And I'm a (qualified)* Bayesian.

    * "qualified" in the sense of "not complete or absolute; limited" but certainly not "officially recognized as being trained to perform a particular job; certified". Another one of those words that means almost opposite things depending on context! But I've forgotten what they're called. Comes from reading too much, I bet. Or not.

  27. Sybil said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

    [Having spent a lot of my life in Boston, where most "unprintable" things people say consist of various forms of the word "fuck", I think I have a bit of expertise, though. The whole rest of it is "wicked" and the rather inscrutable "fuckin' A!"*, which seems to have spread.]

    *Yes, I know that this is just another expression using a form of "fuck". But no one I know can figure out where it came from or why it means what it means, whatever it means. Not that that matters, but… see below.

    And then there is "so isn't"… don't get me started.

  28. Joyce Melton said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

    I think that "giving a fuck" is frequently ironic and contains a hidden negation already. "I could give a fuck" is the same degree of compassion and involvement as "I don't give a fuck".

    "If they were selling give-a-fucks on the corner, twelve for a dollar, I wouldn't take a nickel's worth if I had Ed McMahon following me around with a check the size of a Buick."

    "I think I'm short a few on the number of fucks I'm not going to give this week, so if you have a few to spare I can take up a collection."

    "I gave my last fuck on August 8, 1974."

    Just the concept is negative which is what William Gibson is playing with in his quote.

  29. Jonathan F said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 11:00 pm

    Paul Fussell explained Fuckin-A (in The Boy's Crusade, I think). It's WWII military slang, part of the caustic irony of conscript soldiers towards the military. Instead of just answering a question "yes", they'd mockingly say "affirmative", then "fucking affirmative", then…well, you get the idea.

  30. phspaelti said,

    February 11, 2015 @ 11:20 pm

    Coming back to this a bit late, I now see that I wrote:

    …and you can have any less than nothing.

    where can should have been can't. Rather ironic in a discussion about misnegation.
    So for those who were confused about my point of logic, does that help?

  31. neko said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 5:01 am

    I agree with Callum. It's a deliberate attempt on wordplay. But I think it falls flat.

    The way I understood the quote at face value*, there are two categories of fucks

    1) those already not given
    2) those needing (still pending) someone to not give them

    Flynn falls short in the first one. She in fact has too many in the second group, such that she needs to effect some form of action to lower the number of fucks still requiring her to not give.

    On the topic of deliberately attempted word play: "don't give two shits" is one of those. It's for millennials who want to be ironic. (I'm one)

    *I fully subscribe to what has been said many times here, that language need not always be logical

  32. Michael Drake said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 8:30 am

    Excellent counterfucktual analysis, Mark.

  33. chips mackinolty said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

    Forget listing how many fucks we give or do not give. But how about the adjectival "I don't give a flying fuck"?

  34. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 12, 2015 @ 7:01 pm

    Steve: Much of the "don't give a" thing is backwards. "I don't give [or "care"] a damn" means I don't care enough even to say "damn" if it doesn't go well. "Logically", you'd strengthen that by saying "I don't even give a darn." But instead you strengthen it by strengthening the profanity, not giving a shit or a fuck, and even more by not giving two shits or a flying fuck (which is undoubtedly special somehow).

  35. Michael Dunn said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 1:53 am

    This post is really brilliant though mostly for the comments. Count me as absolutely giving a rousing fuck, or many rousing fucks, Amen..

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:25 am

    Jonathan F.: Thanks for the explanation of "fuckin' A".

  37. Isaac D said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 6:34 pm

    Count me as agreeing with Old Gobbo.

    The number of fucks not given (hereafter "n") is less than the number of situations where Flynn ought not give a fuck (n+x where "x" is a nonzero positive integer).
    Since n+x > n, Flynn has given a fuck in at least one situation where Flynn ought not to have given a fuck, thus Flynn has come up short in the number of fucks not given.

    The expression works mathematically, logically, and linguistically while at the same time being hilarious.

  38. James Wimberley said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 6:44 am

    Why the usage in the first place? Fucks are quite valuable, priced or unpriced.

  39. Sweary links #4 – Strong Language said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 12:25 am

    […] Language Log weighs in on countable swears. […]

  40. Kropp said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 3:24 am

    Interesting. Though not strictly related to number, I am a big fan of nonsensical and, ideally, alliterative qualifiers such as "flying" and "flaming". Also, "couldn't give" is often stronger than "don't give", with its implication that one is literally incapable of giving said article. All of these forms are, of course, also compatible with numerical modifiers, though care should be exercised since excessive specification can ultimately dilute the sentiment.

  41. Alex G said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 2:47 pm

    This comment thread became far too long for me to expend any fucks.

  42. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2015 @ 7:53 am

    "F-bombs notwithstanding, all languages skew toward happiness"
    Psychology & Psychiatry, February 9, 2015

RSS feed for comments on this post