Five Common English Usage Mistakes (And Why They Don’t Matter) — Part One

Anyone who has spent an extended amount of time listening to me talk — especially if there was alcohol involved — probably knows that I have strong feelings about the English language. As a child, I used books as substitutes for meaningful human relationships, a coping mechanism that persisted well into college, and by then it was too late to end my love affair with the written word. I am not a mechanical grammarian — I do not keep my copy of Strunk and White by the bedside table in order to keep the rules fresh in my mind. Rather, I have spent so much time reading that I can recognize errors in usage instinctually, as if I possessed a terribly unimpressive Spider-Sense.

Somewhere a participle is dangling!
Somewhere a participle is dangling!

So you may be surprised to find a post on here telling people that there are English usage mistakes that in fact, do not matter. In a perfect world, there would be no errors of any sort, and we would all speak and write English with the precision of Dickens and the lyricism of Shakespeare, but life is about compromise, and I here to set the record straight on a few things. The unfortunate truth is that recent years have seen the birth of a mighty generation of keyboard warriors who rabidly assault innocent error-makers on social media and public forums, demonstrating very clearly that what the internet needs is a free source of wisdom to accompany the font of free information.

duty_calls

While there are some mistakes that certainly deserve to be corrected, I have noticed that the following five are seized upon with great frequency by the worst kinds of pedants — those that use their incomplete knowledge to achieve superiority over others. Because of my absolute inability to keep word count down when I feel strongly about something, I will be devoting a single post to each of them.

So without further ado, here is the first of five common English usage mistakes and why everyone should just shut up about them.

I could care less

This is a common one, and perhaps more frequently used in speech than text, but it is widely misused everywhere. The intent of the sentence is to express disinterest or dismissal, but the content often works against that end, as in the following:

“I could care less if duck penises are corkscrewed.”

duck
Duck for reference.

In terms of language, the speaker is saying that they, in fact, do care at least a little bit about the status of duck penises. The correct way to express the intended meaning is of course:

“I couldn’t care less if duck penises are corkscrewed.”

This correctly identifies duck penises as being beneath the notice of the speaker. This is often an offhanded or casual comment, largely because the speaker is attempting to express a complete lack of interest. So it may not be surprising that the phrase is not used with razor-sharp accuracy, but that won’t stop a legion of online defenders of the written word from descending on the offender with the fury of a thousand acne-ridden suns.

Here’s why it doesn’t matter: yes, the phrase is being used entirely incorrectly, and if you dissect the meaning of it, it’s quite humorously wrong, good on you for pointing it out. If we are being honest though, when someone says “I could care less”, we all know exactly what they mean. There is zero chance of a person saying “I could care less about Kim Kardashian” and intending to mean that they feel ambivalent about her.

The misused phrase has become so ubiquitous that there can be no serious confusion about its actual meaning. I am not saying that we should abandon all rules and traditions and let English fall into an anarchic pidgin that is indistinguishable from gibberish, but one needs to be realistic about how language works. “I could care less” is now used so commonly that the incorrect usage likely exceeds the correct usage. What’s more, as argued in this Slate article, sarcasm has become so deeply layered with meaning that “I could care less” may in fact have more syntactical merit than it initially seems. No one critiques your Jewish grandmother for saying “I should be so lucky!”.

Most importantly though, because we all know exactly what is meant when a person utters the phrase “I could care less”, when you insist on calling them out in order to demonstrate your superior grasp of the English language, you sound just like this guy:

 

Comicbookguy

Don’t be that guy.

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