By Michele Callaghan, Manuscript Editing
You know how audiophiles react when a glitch mars an otherwise-perfect recording, or how film buffs feel when a jump cut ruins their favorite scene in a movie? Editors have the same feeling when we read the jarring expression that a person “could care less.”
I realize that saying no seems easy. Babies learn it among their first words. But some find negatives very tricky when they don’t appear in their standard form. Perhaps it is because we do allow some unconventional forms of the negative. There is the double negative for emphasis or irony, as when Welsh heartthrob Tom Jones sang “It’s Not Unusual” to the girl he couldn’t help loving. There is the softened negativity of what the humanities scholars call the litote, in which deliberate understatement is employed. Examples include “I am not as young as I was” (to mean “my God, I am getting old”) or “Mozart’s compositions were not half bad” (to say “the man was a freaking genius”).
So, people extrapolate from these and other negative concepts and come up with things like the oft-cited “irregardless,” modeled after irrespective and irreligious and other terms in which adding the I and the R do make a negative. In this case, the “less” does it on its own.
Let’s go back to “I could care less.” This means your level of caring could be infinite and more than you care about anything else in the whole wide world. Likely you really couldn’t care less; in other words, your level of caring cannot be measured because it is so infinitesimally small.
My level of caring about inaccuracy in words is infinite. I can turn a blind eye or even chuckle about people clinging onto old methods of style and typography (double spaces between sentences and the odd hyphen where it doesn’t belong). Heck, I am all about deliberate anachronisms—after all, I sported a fountain pen in college. But please remember to let your no be no and your yes be yes. If you don’t, it will not be unusual at all for me to pull out the proverbial red pencil and negate what you have written.