More on "Could <verb-phrase-of-minimal-concern>"

« previous post | next post »

Jeff Goodman, "Dan Hurley, front-runner for UConn job, hasn't thought about openings 'for a second'", ESPN 3/18/2018:

"Listen, I could give a crap about who's got an opening anywhere," Hurley said. "I haven't thought about it for a second. I could care less what any other school in the country that's looking for a coach or talks about me on social media — I could give two craps about that. My heart, my mind is with this program and these players that just lost a brutal game after having an amazing last couple seasons, and for me it's easy."

Mr. Hurley give us two generalizations by analogy of the idiom could care less: "could give a crap" and "could give two craps".  (He might have gone one to say that he's out of craps to give — see e.g. "Expletive deficits", 7/18/2015.)

In 2010, Jan Freeman documented 50 years of peeving about could care less: "Half a century of (not) caring less". And in 2005, Ben Zimmer antedated the controversial phrase itself to 1955 — "Wrong for so long" — and today's larger newspaper archives show a flowering of slightly earlier mid-1950s examples, such as this example from The Chilliwack Progress (Chilliwack, British Columbia) for 1/6/1954:

I've previously argued against Steve Pinker's theory that could care less is just ironic ("Caring less with stress", 7/8/2004, and "Speaking sarcastically", 7/13/2004), and instead agreed with John Lawler's theory that it's "Negation by association", 7/13/2004. Here's John's explanation:

Give a damn is a member of the open Minimal Direct Object class of NPI's, like lift a finger, drink a drop, do a thing, eat a bite, etc. The implication of all of them is that, if one can't even Verb a Minimal Direct Object, why, then, one couldn't Verb any Direct Object at all. Thus it's an idiomatic intensification of a negative. But it does usually require a negative to intensify.

However, there apparently is such a thing as negation by association. Like what happened to French pas from ne…pas, which is now usable as a negative in its own right, from long association in the discontinuous morpheme with the overt negative negive a damn and could care less have, in American usage at least, come to have their own quasi-independent negative force.

But we don't have a clear picture of which instantiations of the pattern "could <negative-polarity-verb-phrase>" exhibit negation by association — most of John Lawler's examples of the Minimal Direct Object class  don't, for example. The answer might just be that idiom formation is irregular, but I suspect that there's more to say about this.

Some other relevant LLOG posts:

"'Could care less' occurs more" (7/13/2004)
"Lederer should care less" (7/8/2004)
"(Auto)biography of a blog thread" (7/16/2004)
"Most of the people in the world could care less (7/16/2004)
"Caring less all the time: A variant of the etymological fallacy, and some cautions about the pragmatics-phonetics connection (7/24/2004)
"The future of the history of usage (4/16/2005)
"The care less train has left the station (6/20/2005)
"Caring more or less (6/29/2005)
"Ask Language Log: More or less?", 6/30/2008



27 Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 8:25 am

    suspect…*more* to say about this?

  2. Keith said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 9:05 am

    @Stephen Goranson

    But in this context, "more to say about this" would mean the same as "nothing more to say about this".

    So if you do, in fact, have something more to say about this, you can't write "more to say about this", so you're left with "to say about this".

  3. David L said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 9:42 am

    As far as I know, "could care less" and its cousins only appear in American English, and are one of the favorite targets of British peevers who like to moan at great length about how Americans are ruining their beautiful language. I wonder if it has anything to do with the influence on US English of other languages spoken by immigrants.

    (This is a complement to my totally unfounded theory that "I wish you wouldn't have done that" derives from the influence of German).

  4. Tom davidson said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 10:04 am

    Someone please explain why the subject in the first sentence in the news clipping—number—has a plural form verb—are.

  5. Yuval said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 10:22 am

    Funny, everything past the third word in the title of this post wouldn't render in my RSS aggregator display. Has the world still not grown accustomed to literal angular braces in html?

  6. John Lawler said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 10:24 am

    Tom davidson: number is the subject of indicate. Though that's also plural. Probly the NP 'the number of TV antennae' is being construed as plural for emphatic purposes. This is not the best possible writing, after all.

  7. BZ said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 12:34 pm

    It's interesting to note that "give a crap" is not the same construction as "care less". The standard form is something like "don't give a crap" as opposed to "couldn't care less". Further, giving a crap can be a positive development, as in "I'll start giving a crap when…", whereas you can't (yet?) say "I'll start caring less when…".

    So the emergence of "could give a crap" is some sort of mutation of "could care less" and "don't give a crap". As such, I doubt it can gain any real traction unless this interview goes viral or something.

  8. Keith said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

    @Tom and John:

    "Chilliwack and district residents [plural] are [plural] are going overboard…"

    It's not "the number of antennae", but "residents" that is the subject of the verb.

  9. Anthony said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

    The verb in question is "indicate" ("The number of TV antennae …indicate…").

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 1:17 pm

    It seems plausible to me that this sort of "I could give a crap" might have originated in a clipping from the reasonably well-established "like [or "as if"] I could give a crap" (usually said with sarcastic intonation) which more clearly means in context that the speaker does not, in fact, give a crap and has no plans to begin doing so.

  11. Zeppelin said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

    David L: What German construction do you think "I wish you wouldn't have done that" reflects? I've always just taken it as an American attempt at disambiguating subjunctive and past tense.

  12. BZ said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 2:26 pm

    @J.W. Brewer,
    In isolation that's a good theory, but in this instance "I could give a crap" and "I could care less" are paired in the same quote, so Dan Hurley was thinking of them as parallel constructions.

  13. David L said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

    My German is very rusty, but I believe (and google translate agrees) that you would say Ich wünschte, du hättest das nicht getan, whereas in English my preference is for I wish you hadn't done that, with an unsubjunctivated verb in the second part of the phrase. (Although wünschte doesn't directly correspond to wish, so my theory is half-baked at best).

  14. Zeppelin said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 2:49 pm

    David L: Isn't "had" the subjunctive, though? It just looks identical to the past indicative (as it does for every verb except "be"). Which is why Americans try to disambiguate, using a construction that clearly expresses both past (through "have done") and subjunctive (though "would").

    The exact German analogue to American "I wish you wouldn't have done that" would be "Ich wünschte, du würdest das nicht getan haben", which is ungrammatical the same way the American construction is by the standards of literary English — "would/würdest" is only used for hypotheticals/counterfactuals.

  15. cervantes said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

    "I could give a crap" could be taken to mean "that's the most I could give." Note that in English "better than nothing" means at least it's something, but in Spanish "mas que nada" means it might as well be nothing.

    "Could care less" is apparently illogical if read literally, but "less" can be taken to mean "very little," i.e. it could be eliding "less than an [infitesimal, e.g. a crap]," that being the upper limit of how much I could care.

  16. David L said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 3:16 pm

    @Zeppelin: Sie haben meine Theorie zerstört!

  17. Michael Watts said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

    Zeppelin:

    English subjunctives look like bare infinitives, for all verbs including "be". For example, "We require that employees arrive on time."

    "Had" is not a subjunctive form itself, nor part of the subjunctive form of another verb.

  18. Zeppelin said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 4:15 pm

    Michael Watts: I think this may just be a terminological issue.
    German calls the verb form we find in "I wish you hadn't done that"/"Ich wünschte, du hättest das nicht getan" the "Subjunctive II"*, while English calls it the "conditional". I was (perhaps confusingly) applying the German terminology I'm familiar with, since the forms are etymologically and functionally equivalent.

    *well, Konjunktiv II, but "Konjunktiv" vs. "Subjunktiv" is another kettle of fish entirely.

  19. Viseguy said,

    March 22, 2018 @ 8:52 pm

    I'm not sure that I understand negation by association as a general concept, but the analogy/example of "ne … pas" ==> "pas" in French is the most convincing explanation of the etiology of "could care less" that I've ever seen. Yes, "etiology" betrays my prescriptivist-peeving relationship to this particular phrase, but there you have it. (Although my restaurant French has pas de problème with "ne … pas" ==> "pas". :>)

  20. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 3:55 am

    Some may sense a tension within the collocation "care less" if they wish to assert less care (cf. Cervantes "less than" x).
    Perhaps (or not?) related to "I can't even."

  21. Marty Gentillon said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 1:42 pm

    David L, Zeppelin: Both English and German have two 'subjunctive' tenses: subjunctive I, commonly known simply as subjunctive that uses the be form, and subjunctive II, aka irrealis that is, in English, indistinguishable from the past tense form. In, "I wish you hadn't done that" / "Ich wünsche, du hättest das nicht getan" we use the Irrealis / Subjunctive II form of had because we know that you did in fact do that, and it is therefore contrafactual.

    (Wünschte is past tense and would imply that the wishing was now over with).

    It should also be noted that, for the most part, both subjunctive forms are dead in the English language, only existing in certain, fairly specific, instances. Often, sentences so constructed are considered ungrammatical ("he said that she arrive on time" theoretically gramatical, but most won't consider it such).

  22. Christian Weisgerber said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 4:00 pm

    @Viseguy
    A more pertinent French example might be t'inquiète! 'don't worry', reduced from (ne) t'inquiète pas! with complete elision of all negation particles; only the position of the clitic pronoun still indicates the negation.

  23. David Morris said,

    March 23, 2018 @ 8:02 pm

    I could give a crap about a lot of things, and will willingly do so if the opportunity arises.

  24. Philip Anderson said,

    March 24, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

    Although "could care less" is alien to British English, the original post quotes an early Canadian example; is it still acceptable in Canada?

    Subjunctive II is not 100% identical to the past tense, since "I wish he weren't" is still used, as well as "wasn't".

  25. philip said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 4:24 pm

    Marty Gentillon:

    'said' would not normally be followed be the subjunctive anyway in English. But these would …
    She demanded that he arrive on time
    and
    She demanded that he be on time

  26. Marty Gentillon said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 5:01 pm

    @philip

    Agreed. Something that I was arguing is related to the relative death of subjunctive in English. Now, it is only used in fairly rare specific (to report a demand or request, and with certain prepositions) or archaic instances ("long live the queen"). What's interesting is that the intended meaning pattern with 'said' isn't really different than the one with 'demand': we are still reporting something while not saying that she actually did arrive on time. Of course, the simple repeating a report usage has died out, now we can only report demands and requests.

    Nor was I really trying to claim that it is fully dead or that it is going to fully die out, just that, by comparison to German, the English subjunctive is dead, or perhaps, merely half dead. (This probably happened shortly after when we stopped conjugating verbs, it is not something that I would consider ongoing.)

  27. KB said,

    March 25, 2018 @ 8:11 pm

    David L, Zeppelin:

    My unfounded theory for why "wish you would have" is all the Germans' fault: German speaker arriving in the USA needs to translate "hättest", but thinks that can't be "had", as that is "hattest" (no umlaut). So plumps for "would have". Enough new German arrivals do this that others start regarding it as correct.

RSS feed for comments on this post