A Word, Please: Care about this: semantics and syntax

Harold in Clifton Park, N.Y., wrote recently to ask me about the grammar of the sentences "I couldn't care less" and "I could care less."

Until then, I thought there were just two kinds of people in the English-speaking world: people who say "I could care less" and people who want to slap them and scream, "It's 'couldn't'!'"

I've had my frustrations with both camps. So it was refreshing to learn that there is a third contingent — people who actually want to understand the grammar (population: one Harold).

The grammaticality of "could care less" is fascinating — a question a lot of sticklers probably couldn't answer. Here's how a true expert, linguist Noam Chomsky, might explain it: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

Sound like nonsense? It's not. This Chomsky quote, originating from his 1955 thesis, contains the answer to Harold's grammar question.

Chomsky penned his nonsensical statement as an example of a grammatical sentence. That's right, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is grammatical. Indisputably. And, no, that's not some mushy attempt to argue that any sentence can be grammatical. On the contrary, Chomsky also pointed out that "Furiously sleep ideas green colorless" is ungrammatical. Indisputably.

You see, grammaticality is not concerned with the content of a message. Only its form. To be grammatical, a sentence must comply with certain standards, which we often call syntax. Most commonly, a grammatical sentence has a subject and a correctly conjugated verb, with or without other correctly used sentence elements such as adverbials, arranged in a syntactically logical order.

As long as the parts are there and in an order that works, you have a grammatical sentence.

The problem with "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" lies not in its syntax but in semantics. By any semantic analysis, this sentence is pure nonsense. It's gobbledygook, albeit grammatical gobbledygook.

That brings us back to Harold's question.

The problem with "I could care less" is that it's the opposite of "I couldn't care less." Many people will believe that "I could care less" is an example of a grammar error and that the only correct form is either "couldn't care less" or "could not care less."

But grammar has nothing to do with it. Grammatically, these two sentences are pretty much identical. Subject: check. Verb: check. Properly used modifying element ("less") properly placed: check.

It's in the semantics that "I could care less" goes bad. The expression "I couldn't care less" expresses an utter lack of caring. It means, basically, that you care so little about something that you could not possibly care any less.

So when you take out the negation, you get "I could care less," which suggests that you do care at least a little. That's usually the opposite of what folks mean by this.

So is "I could care less" wrong? Well, that question transcends both grammar and semantics to bring in a third consideration: idiom.

Whenever an expression becomes widely used, it's considered standard (idiomatic) and therefore correct. A lot of people are very resistant to this idea — the idea that wrong can become right if it gets popular enough. But that's how language has always worked. It's how we got many of our modern usages.

(Think about it: Is it hard to imagine a time when "throw up" to mean "vomit" was just wrong?)

So has "I could care less" crossed over into the land of respectability? I'd say no. But it may be getting there. Some academics now defend it, saying it is becoming idiomatic.

Until more people agree with this point of view, stick with "I couldn't care less." But when you hear others say "I could care less," take a page from the book of Harold by keeping an open and inquisitive mind.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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