Not that long ago I saw some grammar snobs get mad at the use of a phrase they believed was incorrect. Tyler Wasieleski used the phrase “I could care less what you think” in a tweet and people tried to correct him. They were saying the correct phrasing was “I couldn’t care less” instead.
They’re wrong. Both forms of the phase make complete sense, one permutation is just less common than the other. Of course, you can use the phrases incorrectly, but the only way you can be sure that it was incorrect is if you know the current situation and mindset of the speaker.
But what exactly do the two phrases mean? Let’s quickly go over each one.
“I couldn’t care less.”
The more common of the two permutations of this phrase, “I couldn’t care less” is what most people think of and use. It’s equivalent to saying that you don’t care at all. That is, on the scale of caring, you are currently at zero and the scale of caring does not go lower than zero.
In common speech it is used to indicate no interest in what another person has to say. It’s usually a brush off or a shut up.
Simple really. As compared to…
“I could care less.”
This one takes a bit more thought to understand. Let’s say you’re at a certain level of caring. You could care a lot or a little, but you do care at least some. What this phrase is saying is that your level of care could be lower. On the scale of caring you are at one or higher, and it can still go down at least one notch. It is currently here, but it could be here.
It’s harder to find this phrase in common speech, but one example of its use is as a minor threat. For instance, if you give someone an opinion or critique, and they don’t take it seriously, you could respond with “I could care less”. You’re tell them that you care, therefore you gave them a critique, but next time you might not care as much, and therefore won’t give any feedback at all. It’s like saying, “keep this up and I won’t even bother with you.”
As you can see, two letters and an apostrophe can change the whole meaning of a phrase. And contrary to what some people think, both permutations are correct if properly used.