I love xkcd. It has been a part of my morning coffee routine for years, and I still look forward to every new comic. I have seen where Munroe’s work has occasionally garnered criticism and never understood it. There’s even an xkcd sucks website, which doesn’t make a lick of sense to me. xkcd is consistently smart, funny, and awesome.
The insight Munroe brings to xkcd has even motivated me to examine my behavior. For example, I’ve never been a sports guy, and my youth was a bit tougher for that. As an adult, I’ve felt mostly comfortable in my geekiness, but I used to put up a bit of a shell when it came to sports. I’d take great pleasure in referring to the “Super Ball” and generally showing how little sports meant to me. Munroe’s comic on the matter, and more importantly, his mouseover text, made me reconsider the issue. You know what? I was being a dick.
However, xkcd‘s recent comic on the use of the expression “I could care less” is different. It hasn’t motivated me to change, and hasn’t given me a new insight on myself. In my opinion, Munroe got it wrong with this one. It got under my skin, I think because it put me into a corner: either I am correcting people because of my deep care for them, or I’m an arrogant automaton, opening my mouth out of reflex. In my case, neither is true.
I get that language evolves. I may not always like it when a new meme comes along, or the way we’ve been using a word suddenly changes around me, but I adapt. “Taking a constitutional” used to mean going for a walk. For some reason, many people now take that to mean a bathroom break. Noted. Dangling prepositions are also just fine in my book these days. “A dangling preposition is one thing up with which I shall not put” may be the correct way of saying things historically, but now it just sounds damn peculiar.
“I could care less” is not a case of language evolving. The delineation between “could” and “could not” remains 100% clear. This isn’t a new turn of phrase or interesting idiom. This is, generally, a case of the speaker having heard an expression, not clearly, and starting to use it without thinking about what it means. This is how we’ve gotten such gems as “for all intensive purposes,” “nip it in the butt,” and “it’s a mute point” (or similar). In this case, the speaker meant to convey that they care so little about the point of discussion, that they essentially care not at all, but it’s not what they said.
So, if I understand the person’s meaning, why do I insist on the correction? It’s twofold: first off, I’m partly being helpful. Most people I know don’t like to say words or use phrases incorrectly. Like me, they would prefer to be corrected on their use of language than to go along continually making a verbal blunder. A number of times when I’ve helped someone out in this way their response has been “Why has no one told me this before? I’ve been saying it wrong for years!” I’ve felt the same way on a number of words that I’ve mangled.
The second part is, perhaps, a little more selfish. As Munroe’s character says, language is glorious chaos, elaborating “Every choice of phrasing and spelling and tone and timing carries countless signals and contexts and subtexts and more…” I completely agree, but I reach a different conclusion. While it’s true that you can never be certain what your words will mean to the listener, that just establishes the need to strive for clarity. Your words mean so much and are so prone to misinterpretation that it is essential they depart your mouth meeting a minimum threshold of logic.
When I inform someone they’re using this phrase incorrectly, their reaction is what matters. If they don’t seem to care, it tells me something about how they view language and the degree of importance they attach to clear communication. A person who knowingly uses a phrase incorrectly, to the point of essentially saying the opposite of what they mean, is someone I have to be a little more careful with. It warns me they are at a higher risk of not saying what they mean. I have to think about my interactions with them more holistically, watch their body language closely, and be ready to ask more clarifying questions when we talk. Sure, this is something we should all do, all the time, but there are degrees of attentiveness to these actions, and people who don’t attach much importance to clarity demand more from my cognitive resources than others.
Rarely, I’ll discover people who choose to use phrases like this incorrectly on purpose, just to annoy people like me. They’re a whole different group to consider, but being aware of their motives is helpful as well.
The words you start with are the purest moment in a conversation; after they leave your mouth there’s a bazillion ways it can go wrong. Munroe’s protagonist seems to agree, saying “All you can do is try to get better at guessing how your words affect people, so you can have a chance of finding the ones that will make them feel something like you want them to feel.” However, the comic left me with the message that the onus is on the receiver to politely decline to correct the speaker, unless they only have that person’s best interests at heart. I disagree. I expect better from my friends; I’m unwilling to cater to complacency, laziness, or ignorance; and I need to know the attitude of my conversational partner with respect to language in order to better understand our interaction. I don’t think that makes me a jerk.
If you’ve read to the end of this article, there’s a good chance you could care less about language. A number of you could care a very large amount less. GeekDad is a site that attracts more than its fair share of word nerds, certainly, and I realize that in even broaching this subject that I’ve opened my article, perhaps all my articles, to critique. I want to make it clear that I’m not claiming to be even close to perfect. I have a lot to learn about language and writing, and I make mistakes in every one of my articles. Even having pointed that out I realize that the comments section might fill up with examples of mistakes I’ve made. If that does happen, I’ll probably be OK with it.
In fact, I think I couldn’t care less.