Ask your local neighborhood smarty pants a question about English grammar or usage — any question at all — and chances are she'll give you an answer. Ask any gathering of two or more smarty pantses the same question and chances are they'll give you conflicting answers, then spend hours arguing about whose is right. But ask a copy editor — a person who's paid to know such things — the very same question and, nine times out of 10, he'll do something surprising: He'll reach for a book.

A lot of people think grammar is something you “know.” But the real pros know better. More often than not, English grammar and usage are things that must be looked up. There's too much to commit to memory.

Rules are capricious and inconsistent, and those rules can change pretty quickly. So if you have to get it right, there's no need to pretend you know it all. Just reach for a book.

Two weeks ago in this very space, I reported that “all tolled” is the correct way of writing an expression people sometimes mistakenly write as “all told.”

I had learned about this some years ago by reading “Garner's Modern American Usage.” I remembered it so well that I could picture where on the page in the entry for “all told” — “all tolled” had appeared. So I reported from memory that “all tolled” is the correct expression.

Then, just a week later, I came across this in the New York Times. “All told, the various private equity owners have made around $750 million in profits from Simmons over the years.”

For one brief moment, I thought the New York Times was wrong and I was right. Then, in a rare moment of reason, I realized I should look it up. I opened “Garner's,” where I read: “One archaic meaning of to 'tell' is 'to count.' Hence the idiom is 'all told,' which dates from the mid-19th century. Some people write 'all tolled,' perhaps because 'toll' can mean 'to announce with a bell or other signal.' But this is an error.”

So is reporting fact from memory, I might add.

“All tolled” is an error if you're trying to use the traditional expression. But does that mean it's wrong to write “all tolled”? On the contrary, you can use these words according to their literal meaning to craft your own expression. You could use them to suggest that something is being assessed after everyone involved has paid their toll. Or you could use these words to suggest that everyone has chimed in — tolled their bells, so to speak. The problem is that, if you use “all tolled,” most word-savvy readers will assume you're shooting for — and getting wrong — the traditional idiom.

In that way, it's a lot like “I could care less.” This expression is rooted in an error, experts say. People who meant to say “I couldn't care less” got a little careless, and ended up saying the opposite of what they meant.

After all, taken literally, “I could not care less” means “I don't care at all,” while “I could care less” means that I care some.

But nobody cared. So they kept saying “I could care less.” As a result, the expression that was once considered an error is now defended by some experts who say it has become an accepted idiom.

Distasteful as it is to people who value precision, this is part of the way our language evolves: through error.

Me, I'll keep making it a point to say “I couldn't care less.” And, all told, I'll try to care more.

?JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of “Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies” and “Mortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She may be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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