Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

"Yes, I Could Care Less": A Mixed Bag

There are two books here. I love one of them, but I don't care for the other. Somehow, they're both Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk by Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh.

For me, this book — billed as "a useful guide for writers and all lovers of language" — gets off to a rough start with about eight pages on could care less vs. couldn't care less. This was eight pages more than I could handle. While Walsh does an admirable job of discussing every possible aspect of this itsy-bitsy subject, citing just about every linguist and word maven in the book, it wasn't enough to hold my interest. For whatever reason, I find this language variation and the hubbub surrounding it boring and trivial, which isn't Walsh's fault. However, some annoying aspects of Walsh's style emerged in this section, and they are his responsibility.

In fact, some of my problems with Walsh started even earlier: in the subtitle How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. Maybe I'm taking a lighthearted title too seriously, but I'm not interested in helping snobs not be jerks. I'd rather help snobs not be snobs. Even better, I'd rather avoid the counterproductive discourse about language that divides people into snobs (prescriptivists) and slobs (descriptivists). The parts of this book that are written as a self-confessed snob tend to be childish and passive-aggressive.

For example, Walsh is fond of making comments such as "Call me an authoritarian bastard" and "I guess I'm being churlish again," followed by a gripe that, sure enough, sounds authoritarian or churlish. I guess these comments are supposed to be self-deprecating, but they strike me as insecure and needlessly needling of the audience. If I had been Walsh's editor, my advice would have been: "Either be churlish and proud or stop being churlish, but don't be so cute about it." Walsh even starts the first chapter with "Now, don't get me wrong" — a staple of weak student writers trying to get away with saying something they know they probably shouldn't be saying at all. The persistently adolescent tone undercuts a lot of otherwise interesting writing in the first half of this book.

Walsh can also be flat-out insulting. Yes, I Could Care Less is sprinkled with oft-mangled movie lines, and their purpose is far from clear, unless it's to underline the "People are stupid" theme. Here's a cheap, throwaway insult of people who make common language mistakes: "No matter how many people drink ‘expresso' and eat ‘sherbert,' smart people insist on using the exact words." At one point, there's a joke about people in trailer parks — a weak jab at an easy target that damns the author more than anyone. If you've read any of my previous reviews or columns, you know I'm not the most mature knife in the drawer, but there's something about Walsh's blend of childishness and passive-aggression that really burned my toast.

This is especially frustrating because Walsh has a knack for writing perceptive, well-crafted sentence, like this perfect explanation of the difference between linguists and copy editors: "There are best practices and there is anthropology; there are exterminators and there are entomologists." On the other hand, he bizarrely ignores the distinguishing feature of linguistics: it focuses on speech. If this difference has been acknowledged, many annoying and unnecessary paragraphs that pitted snobs vs. slobs might have disappeared.

I hope you're still reading, because the second half of this book is absolutely wonderful.

When discussing specific usage issues, Walsh is one of the best writers I've encountered. His discussion of the passive voice — a topic that bamboozles so many smart people — might be the best I've ever read. I learned a few new things about comma use, and I've been writing professionally and teaching writing for over 10 years. His notion that a writer/editor should commit "tiny acts of elegance" in prose is beautiful. I dearly wish the second half of this book could be doubled. It is wonderful and would be a real help to any writer or editor. Walsh transcends this snob/jerk foolishness when he focuses on the details of language.

Ultimately, I don't think Walsh is a snob or jerk at all. Based on the stronger parts of this book, he's just an excellent copy editor and writer. My theory is he's playing the part of the churlish snob, probably to sell books, which is a pretty understandable motivation. He reminds me a little of comedian Anthony Jeselnik, who created an evil persona (based partially on pro-wrestling villains) that allows him to get laughs with jokes like "I've spent the past two years looking for my ex-girlfriend's killer — but no one will do it." In the passive-aggressive, reader-baiting parts of this book, Walsh is playing dumber and snobbier than he actually is. He gives the pose away by showing how smart and non-snobby he can be elsewhere.

If you've made it this far, I'm not sure what to tell you. This is a strange book. At times, it reads like petulant twaddle. At other times, it is one of the most informed, sensible books on language I've ever read.

I guess I'm being churlish again, but I can't wholeheartedly recommend buying this book.

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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday May 15th 2013, 8:29 AM
Comment by: James R.
I'm a travel writer & recently traveled in Scotland with two of the world's top whiskey tasters. They were also two of the most charming individuals I've ever met. Their mutual love of whiskey elevated both of them, but they brought out this tendency in others to condemn certain whiskeys as being substandard. They would have none of it; all whiskey was good, blended and single malts alike. What made a great whiskey was personal & required the drinker to take ownership of the particular whiskey by investing it with values such as the memory of drinking it, the place, the people you were with as well as the flavors it carried with it. I'm not much of a drinker, but I learned something valuable from these two cherubic old souls. Pleasures can't be lifted from their contexts like specimens and enjoyed in isolation. Obviously some write better than others, speak better than others, but it's how a writer owns his or her language and ownership is all about keeping it vital by investing what we value in it. I liked your essay. You seemed genuinely frustrated that a writer, with some important things to say, felt the need to play the cultured snob. My take away will be "tiny acts of elegance."
Wednesday May 15th 2013, 8:58 AM
Comment by: Sandra C. (San Diego, CA)
I've always assumed that the contentious phrase "I could care less" is in fact a fragment--that it assumes another, implied, commonly used fragment, "As if...." "As if I could care less!" makes perfect sense. The fragment concept is consistent with current slang usage. Does this make the problem go away?
Wednesday May 15th 2013, 9:38 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Wow, Mark, you have made me think. This is one of the most revealing and self-revealing essays I have read on this column. Most writers here do not get so close to their material that anything personal can be said later about them. Let alone about another person.

I surely do understand why you wrote it. I would have thrown the book you review across the room very early in the reading of it, crying "Ouch! Ouch!" And now I am almost willing to buy it for the second half, if I can find the dividing line.

I began reading the Visual Thesaurus for the columns, of course. (Does anyone read it because they don't know the words?) I am a writer of fiction who was completely untutored in all rules of grammar, having had an education strictly in the sciences. All I've learned is through 40 years of copy-editing. So you could say I'm a descriptivist trying to learn enough prescriptivism to pass as eddicated. But I've wallowed in TVT since, because it's the best fun I've had on the Internet. And articles such as yours is the reason for that.

I still don't know what to do about that book!
Wednesday May 15th 2013, 9:40 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
Of course, I meant to write. " . . . such as yours ARE the reason for that . . . " But I got excited.
Thursday May 16th 2013, 12:08 AM
Comment by: mac
re what Sandra had to say about a fragmented "I could care less," there's another implied version that's a New York example. There are those of us who say, "I could care less", aware our listener knows the tag to that is, "but I don't know how . . ."
Thursday May 16th 2013, 12:15 AM
Comment by: Bosse B.
Dear Roberta M.
About being snobbish.
Just in case you, unlikely, didn't know, there are more of us than of you. We are plenty that come here because we need to know (more) about the words. We, the vast majority of English speakers ar non-native speakers. Ha!
And I'm mostly as excited as amused to slurp up what's served on Visual Thesaurus. Ha! Again!
Thursday May 16th 2013, 10:34 AM
Comment by: TheErn (Bedford, TX)
Going back to your first two commenters above, James R. and Sandra C. -- I'm in complete agreement. VT's articles are the best -- and your responders also. (Excuse me, though, for my "churlish self-deprecation" when I have to say: present company excepted.) The Ern.
Thursday May 16th 2013, 12:11 PM
Comment by: Sandra C. (San Diego, CA)
Mac-I like your New York example!--Sandra
Saturday May 18th 2013, 11:51 PM
Comment by: mac
thank you, Sandra. another N Y expression?: "the nerve of me" (in this case, for taking credit and taking the bow).
Saturday June 22nd 2013, 4:41 PM
Comment by: Soph
Who's talking, Bosse B?

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