could (not) care less, adverbs

A flock of relatives came from Indiana for Dad's birthday party and were underwhelmed by the hotel services in Hometown. At various times, at least three relatives told the sad story of the check-in and said that the staff "could care less if they got any business." This set off the prescriptivist alarm bells in my head, and it took great acts of willpower to not play teacher and correct them with "could NOT care less." Just hours later, regular reader/contributor David in Dublin sent me a link to John Cleese's podcasts, and in particular podcast 18, in which he lectures Americans about the correct form of this phrase. It's an entertaining little rant.

Let's keep this straight: there are BrE speakers who erroneously say could care less as well. But AmE speakers do it a LOT more often.

Besides could care less, the use of adjective forms in adverbial slots is, from time to time, brought to me (by BrE speakers) as a certain sign of AmE inferiority and of the degradation of BrE through the influence of AmE. Here are some examples, in case you don't know your adverb from your elbow:
He did it realADJ well. VERSUS He did it reallyADV well.

He did it real
ADJ goodADJ. VERSUS He did it reallyADV wellADV.

She did that so cuteADJ. VERSUS She did that so cutelyADV.

When BrE speakers chide me about "ignorant" aspects of AmE, I have a ready arsenal of BrE illogicalities, "errors" and losses to throw back at them--some of which have been or will be discussed here. And the adjective-as-adverb issue is easier to dismiss as "not our fault", since using adjectives as adverbs is an established feature of several BrE dialects. Furthermore, both adjective-as-adverb and could care less are considered to be "non-standard" in AmE--we do have some standards, I say. But on the way home from an American Christmas party, I remarked to Better Half "I don't think I've ever gone for so long without hearing an adverb," to which non-linguist BH replied, "I wouldn't have been able to say it that way, but I know what you mean!" (The last adverbless example above is an actual example from the evening.) One does hear adjective-as-adverb in BrE--and not just in noticeably dialectal speech. But it's certainly not heard in BrE at the rate one hears it in AmE speech these days.

Tomorrow we're back to Blighty, so this ends my (BrE) holiday-/(AmE) vacation-time blog-o-rama. Next week we'll be back to term-time posting frequency.


  1. Hmmm. I always thought that the 'could care less' thing was actually ok, because it was (i assumed) part of an utterance such as "as if i could care less", or "like i could care less". Do you think there's a case to make for the as if or like being elided much of the time? Or is it just, y'know, wrong? :)

  2. I hate to strike a discordant note (OK, you guessed: I'm lying. I love striking discordant notes.) but I could care less whether people say I could care less or I couldn't care less. The meaning is clear and unambiguous in either case; Cleese's rant is indeed entertaining, but he is in no doubt that those who say I could care less mean that they do not care at all, so if this form of the phrase conveys the meaning so clearly, I don't see a problem with it. In fact, I rather like its implicit paradox: it suggests to me "I could care less, but I already care so little, that I don't even care enough to quantify the amount of my (non-)caring in a manner that might satisfy the presciptivists."

  3. Similarly, I could care less whether people use an adjective or an adverb to do the job which you prescriptively seek to maintain as the exclusive preserve of the adverb, rather as the British trade union demarcation disputes of the 1970s sought to restrict specific jobs to specific sections of the workforce. Adjectives can qualify verbs just as good as adverbs can, so why shouldn't they? Prescriptivist conservatives might worry that adverbs could disappear from the language, but who needs them? Let them go! Adjectives can do their job just fine!

  4. Blighty??? Blimey!

  5. I think "I could care less" is just fine, only Americans put the emPHASis on the wrong sylLABle. It ought to be sarcastic; Strawman has the emphasis right: "I could care less."

    But as for the adverb vs. adjective argument, Strawman is arguing for a wholesale redefining of the terms "adjective" and "adverb." If the statement "All adjectives are also adverbs" is true, do those two words have any meaning anymore?

    There's a lot of open, happy space between strict prescriptivism and grammatical anarchy. Strawman went too far in the other direction.

  6. Yes, I too agree with strawman. I would say, although it is probably not the origin of the saying, "could care less" might be used sarcastically. Perhaps it could even be seen as an example of litotes, understating the truth. Either way, I somehow now feel compelled to change my speech pattern to conform with BrE.

    I do have a question, though. Does BrE not use the same rule about splitting infinitives as we AmE educated have? Are sentences such as "it took great acts of willpower to not play teacher" acceptable in BrE? I know this is a common occurence in spoken AmE, but most self-respecting AmE English teachers would be pained not to correct it if appearing in print. Does BrE make the same grammatical faux pas in common speech? Just curious...

  7. Very few people in AmE or BrE these days argue for the non-splitting of infinitives. It's an artificial rule created recently (in linguistic terms), based on the fact that in Latin, in which infinitives are each a single word, it is impossible to split an infinitive. Basing English prescriptive grammar on Latin is pretty silly, as the languages are structured very differently.

    Note that by saying could not care less, one isn't following BrE--I'm not claiming that that phrase is BrE--it's the correct phrase in AmE too. I don't think the mistaken use of could care less is sarcasm. The phrase is being used as an idiom, without much attention to what the internal parts mean. I think the less gives people the sense that they're saying something negative.

  8. I agree with lynneguist that the cause of the "problem" here is the confusion of less/more with a negative.

    Note that this has long been a problem. Shakespeare has this exchange in Coriolanus:

    Tullus Aufidius, is he within your walls?

    No, nor a man that fears you less than he,
    That's lesser than a little.

    If there is no man within the walls of Corioles who fears Coriolanus less than Aufidius does, then it suggests that there are, in fact, many people in the town who do fear Coriolanus, precisely the opposite of what the Senator means to say. Shakespeare seems to have known there was some ambiguity here, and so follows it up with the clarifying: "That's lesser than a little." The gist seems to be, "It's impossible to fear you less than Aufidius fears you, because he fears you so very little." But what he's basically saying here is the equivalent of "I could care less," i.e., "We all fear you more than Aufidius does."

    Samuel Johnson emended the text to read, "Nor a man but fears you less than he," to try to save Shakespeare from the solecism. But I agree with the great editor Edmund Malone, who wrote of this passage: "The text, I am confident, is right, our author almost always entangling himself when he uses less and more."

  9. I just came upon this site today and would like to thank you for such an interesting, content filled, measured, and fun blog. I am also pleased to see that the postings and comments are refreshingly free of the jingoism and sneering that typically accompany any site discussing British / American dialect differences.

    I think it should be emphasized that the loss of adverbs, which is admittedly quite common in American English, is still regarded as non-standard. I know that I personally cringe at phrases such as “He did real good.” I’ve even joked that I’m a member of the A.L.F (Adverb Liberation Front). However, I wonder whether I should take pause and see the loss of adverbs as part of the natural evolution of the language. If I remember correctly from my college days, the English language has gone through an evolution from being a synthetic language to an analytical language. We’ve lost (or rid ourselves of) genders for nouns, most word declinations, and have reduced the number of conjugated forms for verbs. I am curious what your opinion (as a linguist) is regarding the evolution of the language? Is the adverb just another casualty when we make word order and not word ending supreme?

  10. I agree with Strawman, that whether or not the polarity of what is essentially an idiomatic expression is propositionally correct, its understandability remains largely unaffected.

    As for adverbs, well, before we claim the loss of distinction between two traditional parts of speech, i think we need to have a clear definition of what an adverb really is, and I don't think we have a consensus yet.
    Also, I think we are making mountains out of molehills in proclaiming 'language evolution' just because a specific dialect drops a morpheme that is almost entirely predictable by context. I am struggling to come up with an example that is ambiguous between an adjectival and adverbial reading. The best I can do is this is a real red wine, which, assuming the adjective-for-adverb option, can either mean the wine is really (very) red, or that the red wine is a prototypical, or even just good example of a red wine, a real one.
    This being the sort of alternation one would have to record unsuspectingly, I can't tell you how much I drop the -ly morpheme, but my guess is that I do it fairly frequently. However, I read some of the letters I send to my local broadsheet and remark at how many brilliant adverbs I use.
    I don't think we are in any danger of 'losing' adverbs.

  11. Jangari, don't you mean that you drop the -ly from adverbs fair frequent?

    Interesting to note here that while people say real instead of really as an intensifier, it sounds real(ly) weird to say fair instead of least in the dialects I'm familiar with.

  12. Something that struck me about this discussion, which nobody else seems to have pointed out, is the difference between talking and writing. As things are coming off your tongue it doesn't matter quite so much how they sound as long as the meaning is clear (which, as Jangari illustrates, is almost always the case) but in writing I, at least, tend to be a lot more careful about these things. So, when I'm listening to people talk I'm not usually annoyed by slight lapses in correct grammar, but grammatical errors in writing bring out my internal grammar warrior!

  13. I think there's a real difference between adverbs that allow the dropping of the -ly and those that don't. As you point out, Lynn, I just can't say fair frequently in that context, but I can say fairly frequent or at least, I think I can (sentences invariably sound more grammatical the more I think about them).

    There are certainly instances of adverbs which never drop the -ly and others that may. I sense that the operative difference is that those that never drop the -ly are those adverbs that act as an adjunct affecting the entire clause (certainly above, is an example). Those that may appear as -ly-less forms are within a noun phrase (or an adjective phrase, depending on your analysis) and therefore only affect an adjective (this is a [[real(ly) good] wine]). In other words there is a difference between adverbs that modify entire clauses (which is seen to revolve around the verb, thus ad-verb) and those that modify adjectives. It's just coincidence that these two are form-identical. I suspect all that is happening with the dropping of -ly is that the modifiers of adjectives are being associated more with modifiers of nouns (adjectives) than with modifiers of clauses (adverbs).

    Sorry, this may have come out a lot less clear than it seemed in my head.

  14. Alright, I just thought of some evidence to back that all up.

    The sentence that's really convenient is structurally ambiguous. The 'really' may either be a sentential adjunct affecting the entire clause, or it may be only modifying the adjective 'convenient', as in 'very'.
    Now, I may be wrong, but I have the inkling that by dropping the -ly, then it may only have the second reading. You can say that really is convenient but never *that real is convenient.
    Applying the same test with a synonym for the sentential adjunct, such as 'truly', and a synonym for the other one, like 'very', and it seems that -ly-less adverbs are more like adjective-modifiers than clause-modifiers:

    that truly is convenient
    *that very is convenient
    that is very convenient
    *that is true convenient

    So Lynne, real(ly) versus fairly? I'd say that fairly is a sentential adjunct and that real(ly) can be either.
    (Sorry for the long-winded comments)

  15. Nice artumentation, J. How about coming over and doing a postgraduate degree? I like having students who like to write linguistic arguments!

    You're right that this sense of fairly doesn't work as a sentential adjunct and that really can be ambiguous. But I don't think it works as an argument for why one can't change fairly to fair when it's acting as a adjective modifier. On the logic of your examples, if we (or at least some people) can say It's real convenient, why can't they also say It's true convenient? I.e. if the thing that allows us to make really into real is the fact that it's an adjective modifier and not just a sentential adverb, then why does it sound just as bad (at least to me) to say
    It is true convenient
    It is fair convenient
    but it sounds considerably "better" (in a descriptive grammatical sense of "better") to say
    It is real convenient.

    I'm not sure there's a logic to it. Could just be a lexical fluke.

  16. I just made up a new word (contender for next year's WotY?): artumentation. I declare it (post hoc) to mean 'the use of argumentation as conversational art'.

  17. I think that fairly can lose its -ly, provided it is modifying an adjective, it's just difficult finding an appropriate example.

    Think of a boxing match in which the boxers fought in a fair manner. You can say they fought fairly in which case it is sentential, or you can nominalise it and throw it in a noun phrase and say it was a fairly fought match. I think it's possible (feel free to disagree) to say it was a fair fought match.

    Not convinced? Neither am I, to be honest. I'm just trying to exhaust all possibilities. Maybe it is a 'lexical fluke', but I prefer to think that some lexical preferencing is blocking this alternation from being fully productive.

    Thanks for the invitation, but I have to decline. Three years in England? Honestly.

  18. I dunno my a***** from my elbow, but I do adjectives just fine. Interesting thing about the -ject- part of the latter term. It means to throw, yeah? Like conjecture, and interject? Throwing odd bits into the convesation?

    I should now be able to seque into a mention of alternatives to 'artumentation', but haven't found a clever way to phrase it, so I'll just ask: since discourse and intercourse are sometimes used with reference to conversation, could contracourse be a contender for WotY?

    And now that I am reminded, is conversation made from con-vers(o)-tion? Seems like an awful lot of back-n-forth!

  19. I think the main criterion for a 'from-this-blog' WoTY will be whether it is used/noticed outside its initial coining. So, if you have feelings about one of these words, you should start using it in artuments and contracourse.

  20. The term 'British English' is erroneous. English spoken by Brits is called 'English.' English spoken by Americans is called 'American English.'

  21. Whereas I thought that being rude in the comments was what would be thought of as 'erroneous'.

    Stupid American me!

    There is an error in talking about 'British English' and 'American English' in that there is no one 'British English' and no single 'American English'. But the British English that exists now probably bears about as much resemblance to the English that existed when America started as American English does. One only speaks the language of the generation that one is born into, not that of the previous centuries. So the claim that English 'belongs' to those in England is only true, I believe, for those of you who have been alive for at least a good 500 years or so.

  22. I should have said in the last "'belongs' to those in England _as opposed to those in America or elsewhere_"

  23. The statement 'That's really convenient' would be taken at face value, whereas 'That's real convenient' would usually be seen as sarcastic. A strange but interesting difference.

  24. My husband and I have this argument all the time. Here is some background. He truly believes that Budweiser is not "real" or a true beer because it is made with rice. It does not matter that it is classified world wide as a type of beer. It also doesn't matter that I find it to be "real beer" because of the classification, not the taste or what it's made of. So when he tries a new beer type that he finds the taste to be really good he will say,"now that's real beer". Since I know the basis behind his thinking, this always makes me reply, that's, "REAL" convenient. Meaning, "NOT" really, and definitely in the sarcastic sense. In my view the speaker is always emphasizing and focused on the value of the word "real" rather than the word convenient.


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AmE = American English
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