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Could you care less whether or not you could not care less? (Wood on Words).

"As military fighter jets rain bombs on Afghanistan, Americans still do not know if the White House is truly keeping passenger planes from becoming bombs."

This Boston Globe lede from the editorial page of 2/27/2K2 will prompt a prompt j'accuse from advocates of economy-class prose. The problem dwells in the phrase military fighter jets. It invites the question "Is there any other kind?"

Same paper, 10/22/2001, same page. Headline: "Caught in uncharted waters." Lede: "Homeland Security. Here is an area where we' re in unchartered waters. Nobody has lived through this before, and so we operate without a precedent in modern American history."

Born of Latin charta--piece of papyrus--our 1571 noun chart, says Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate Dictionary, includes in its meanings "a map for the use of navigators." In re this short essay on terrorism in America, the headline writer made the proper inference despite the essayist's bobble that produced unchartered waters. One may charter a boat for some fishing; its course should be charted with skill.

* A cordial e-mail from John Ford, who is v.p., corporate communications, at The Blackstone Group, New York City, arrived 5/30 to say, "Your article in the latest edition of Communication World prompts me to write on an issue that is more a corruption of the language than strictly a misuse of words.

"Having been born and bred in England, a phrase I commonly use is 'I couldn't care less', despite having been told frequently by my grandmother that one should always care to some extent. I find that in the U.S. the phrase is expressed as 'I could care less'. Clearly if one could care less, there must already be some level of caring. When used as 'I couldn't care less,' the meaning is exactly as intended--that one cares not one jot about it.

"What is alarming is the consistency with which the corrupted version is used on this side of the Atlantic. I have heard it from many highly educated people, on television news reports, on the radio and even in a newspaper or two. It seems it is becoming the accepted rendering, and although my grandmother would surely approve, it still makes a nonsense of the saying."

What is probably the most recent explication cisatlantic appears in Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 1998): "couldn't care less is the correct and logical phrasing, not could care less--e.g.: 'The American people could care less [read couldn't care less] who's White House Chief of Staff.' George Will, on This Week with David Brinkley, 3 July 1994. If you care some, that means you must care. In other words, if you could care less, you're saying that you do care. Invariably, though, writers and speakers who use the phrase mean that they don't care at all.

"Although some apologists argue that could care less is meant to be sarcastic and not to be taken literally, a more plausible explanation is that the -n't of couldn't has been rubbed out in sloppy speech and sloppy writing."

We thank colleague Ford, with whom we leave an expression treasured by our own paternal grandmother: De gustibus non est disputandum.

* Kathleen Much, a frequent filer of good copy to this outpost, e-writes on May 31, "I just found a marvelous error in my 2003 catalog from Van Engelen Bulbs: 'Native to Europe and the Caucuses, these star-shaped flowers are tremendous naturalizers.'

"Probably good politicians, too. I'm sure the writer meant 'Caucasus' and didn't bother to look at the map." For the region between the Black and Caspian Seas., Caucasus; for the gathering of political parties or factions, caucuses. Thanks, KM.

* And speaking of politicians, savor this admonition from the old pol to the new: "Never write when you can talk; never talk when you can nod; never nod when you can wink." Politics, anyone?

Alden Wood, APR, lecturer on editorial procedures at Simmons College, Boston, writes and lectures on language usage. He is a retired insurance industry vice president of advertising and public relations. His e-dress is WoodonWords@aol.com.
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Author:Wood, Alden
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
Words:686
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