Ask the Book Doctor
By Bobbie Christmas
Yes, Editors Use Editors, and I Couldn't Care Less
Q: I read through your book "Write In Style," and you make good points. I’m just curious, considering that you edit for a living, whether you had your book edited or did it yourself.
A: I edited as much as I could myself, but even an editor cannot edit herself. The publisher assigned me an editor who edited about half the book then left the company. Unfortunately the rest went unedited, because the company had a release date to meet and did not hire another editor right away. Since publication I've found errors that should have been caught, but I was too close to the work to see the mistakes at the time. To err is human, and for some odd reason, writers cannot see their own mistakes—until after publication.
Q: In your article for the South Carolina Writers Workshop newsletter, The Quill, you say, "We who have the editing gene must live with well-documented errors that continue to creep into our language until some people find it acceptable. ‘I could care less,’ instead of ‘I couldn't care less’ is one formation that makes me cringe when I see it and hear it, but it crosses my path (and makes me cross) at least once a month."
I agree with most or your points, but in this case (usually) when someone says "I could not care less" they're being honest. When they say, "I could care less," they're being ironic or sarcastic.
A: I beg to differ, and I'm not alone. When people say "I could care less," it means they do care, but could care a little less if they wanted. It is not sarcasm; rather it is misuse of the language and does not say what the person really means. The intent is to say that they do not care at all; therefore, the correct term is "I could not (or couldn't) care less."
A cartoon that appeared in the November-December 2005 edition of SPELL/Binder, the official newsletter of the Society for the Preservation of English Language and Literature, backs me up. It shows a woman dressed in hat and coat, her bags packed, speaking to her husband, who sits in an easy chair watching TV. The woman is saying, "You could care less? Don’t you mean you couldn’t care less? That kind of crummy English is why I’m leaving."
Sarcasm is the intent of "I couldn't care less." I have no idea how the misuse, "I could care less," crept into our language, but the earnestness with which people defend it proves that it has been used incorrectly so long that people think it is right. The "mistaking the incorrect for the correct" problem is what we sticklers fight against. Hey, some people still defend the use of "irregardless," when they actually mean "regardless" or "irrespective."
As an interesting addition, when I tried to send my answer by e-mail, my automatic AOL spell check highlighted the section that said "I could care less" and remarked, "Misspelled expression. Consider 'couldn't' instead." It continued: "The real meaning of a sentence like 'I could care less about their priorities' is more logically phrased with 'I couldn't care less about their priorities.' Even clearer is the paraphrase 'Their priorities don't concern me.'"
Thank you, AOL and SPELL for backing me up.
—Bobbie Christmas is a book editor, freelance writer and author of "Write In Style: Using Your Word Processor and Other Techniques to Improve Your Writing," published by Union Square Publishing and distributed by Simon & Schuster. Send your questions to the book doctor at Bobbie@zebraeditor.com.