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Bizarro World: Opposite Idioms

In recent weeks, we've talked about idioms that are misheard, and thus miswritten. Now, we'll discuss some idioms that say the opposite of what they mean and whether they're "acceptable" English.

As we mentioned some time ago, the title of Bill Walsh's new book, Yes I Could Care Less, was scolded by LinkedIn for bad grammar. If you can care less, the argument goes, it means you care some. "I could care less" grates on many ears, who want the more literal (but still idiomatic) "I couldn't care less" to prevail. Garner's Modern American Usage puts "I could care less" at Stage 3 of the five-stage Language-Change Index, on the way to becoming "acceptable." "Although some apologists argue that I could care less is meant to be sarcastic and not to be taken literally," Garner's says, "a more plausible explanation is that the -n't of couldn't has been garbled in sloppy speech and sloppy writing." Unlike "nip in the butt," also garbled in speech and writing, "I could care less" has legions of supporters. The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms says "both versions are used with approximately equal frequency." In addition, it fits in with other idiom antonyms, like:

"It fell between the cracks." Garner's also calls this idiom "illogical," since anything falling between the cracks will just bounce off the slats or tiles or whatever surface has the cracks. The "logical" phrase is "fall through the cracks." While Garner's lists "fall between the cracks" as Stage 2, less acceptable than "could care less," popular usage is outpacing the Language-Change Index; in the past year, "through the cracks" and "between the cracks" yield a roughly equal number of uses in the Nexis database of tracked publications. The Dictionary of Idioms doesn't even hint that there is anything wrong with "between the cracks," and just discusses both versions.

Finally, there's "near miss," as in "Federal authorities are investigating a near-miss between two small planes at the local airport." (The hyphen appears more often than it doesn't.) The argument against it is that something that nearly missed didn't miss at all; it hit something. In fact, its derivation is World War II, when a "near miss" by a bomb meant that some damage did occur. This one doesn't even make Garner's, but other usage authorities have objected to it for years. As early as 1981, William Safire hailed "near midair collision" as the correct terminology, where "The event described is ‘nearly a collision,' and not ‘nearly a missed collision.'" Nearly 25 years later, he still called "near miss" "a nonsensical version of near thing."

Alas — or thank heavens, depending on your view — "near miss" has been codified in dictionaries, without the hyphen. Webster's New World College Dictionary, used by The Associated Press and many other news publications, says a "near miss" is "a narrowly averted collision; a near escape." (It also accepts that a "near miss" "comes close enough to inflict some damage," and is "any result that is nearly but not quite successful.")

So it's not even close: "Near miss" is a hit.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday November 13th 2013, 4:05 AM
Comment by: Victor G. (Vancouver Canada)
I'd agree with most of your analyses in this article (and particularly for pointing out the flaw with "...between the cracks."), except with regard to "near miss." I would argue that "near miss" means a miss that was so close as to be frightening in the case of something that could have been tragic or frustrating in the case of something that would have been desirable.
Wednesday November 13th 2013, 8:54 AM
Comment by: James R.
"Could care less" shreds my composure every time I hear it. As you suggest, it's clearly a phrase so clichéd that its syllables are being dissolved because there's a diminishing amount of thought-marrow invested in sustaining the full utterance. It suggests a lack of commitment to what the speaker is saying; a mouth running like a forgotten faucet.
Wednesday November 13th 2013, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
I think that the problem (if you see it that way) with "could care less", the thing that's making it gain in usage, is that its rhythm is better suited to the dismissive attitude it's usually used for. Try saying both phrases aloud, and you'll probably see that the illogical one has an easier, smoother cadence. Wave your hand and turn your head as you do it for full effect. :D
Wednesday November 13th 2013, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Jonathon O. (UT)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree with Victor G. about "near miss"—the complaints seem to me to be based on a misanalysis. Near is an adjective modifying miss, so it's a miss that's near (that is, close to being a hit), as opposed to a miss that went wide of the target. It's not something that is nearly a miss.
Wednesday November 13th 2013, 9:46 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
I seem to interpret "I could care less", as "I could care less [but I don't]. Maybe that's just from hearing both usages, and making a mental adjustment, so that it still has the same meaning to me.

Perhaps "[fall] between the cracks" is sometimes a lazy carry-over from "[read] between the lines".
Thursday November 14th 2013, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Deborah S.
"I couldn't care less" & " I could just about (or almost) care less" both get the message across. "I could care less" is confusing and cannot be explained with the suggestion that it is sarcasm. It can only be explained as a language error that was repeated so often in a phrase that it is said thoughtlessly. Where I live now, the word "idea" has morphed into "ideal," apparently starting with someone's poor accent. More people repeating an error does not make it any less of an error. If "I could care less" were proper or understandable, of my five children, at least the one who couldn't care less about his verbal skills wouldn't have noticed that it makes no sense - unless, of course, I misjudged his interest in communication skills, and this phrase is one point above the place he stops caring.
Friday November 15th 2013, 9:53 AM
Comment by: Stephen H.
I heard "unchartered waters" used recently. I believe it was on the PBS NewsHour. Set my mind adrift. Can water be chartered, like a bus? If so, where would it take you. Or does unchartered water not have the rights and privileges normally granted by a charter. Interesting that after the guest used the word the interviewer began using the same word. Perhaps he didn't want to seem to correct his guest.
Saturday November 16th 2013, 2:54 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
"I could care less" may be a conflation of "I couldn't care less" and "I could care" which was used around my university in the early 70s to mean pretty much the same thing. In any case, to say one "could care less" is to put one's caring on the scale infinitesimally close to zero, that is, "It is possible that I could care less about this, but the difference would be too small to notice."

As for which of these alternatives people choose to use, I could(n't) care (less).

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