In this article we examine four common verb errors. Can you spot the problem phrase in each of these sentences?

  1. We can’t hardly wait for the judge to hand down her decision about the case.
  2. I was suppose to finish the project on Friday, but I failed to make the deadline.
  3. Steve use to chair the finance committee, but now Helen is in charge.
  4. Mary told her boss, Harry, that she was sick, but he acted as though he could care less and gave her more work to do.

Can’t Hardly vs. Can Hardly

The problem in the first sentence is the phrase “can’t hardly.” Webster’s notes that such usage is a “speech form . . . most commonly heard in Southern and Midland speech areas.”

In our professional writing, we should say “can hardly” (or “could hardly,” if appropriate) when we wish to suggest that an action (such as waiting, in sentence 1) is difficult. Think of “can’t hardly” as a double negative, and drop either the not” or the “hardly.”

Webster’s even goes on to say that hardly can be used to “soften a negative,” thus lending credibility to the phrase.  But remember: dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive; that is, they tell us how people currently use a language, not how logic should dictate that use.

Suppose/Use To vs. Supposed/Used To

In sentences 2 and 3, the words suppose and use need the letter d added because we need the past participle form of the verb in front of the infinitives “to finish” and “to chair.”

Of course, we correctly use the present-tense verbs suppose and use in constructions in which that tense is appropriate, as in these examples:

  • Sally, do you ever use a dictionary?
  • I suppose I will give her the money if she asks for it.

In some present tense constructions, use and suppose may even be appropriate before an infinitive; consider, for example, “This is the key I use to unlock the back door.”  But in most cases, we need to add the d whenever use or suppose is followed by an infinitive: “used to go,” “used to be,” “supposed to go,” “supposed to be,” and so forth.

Could Care Less vs. Couldn’t Care Less

In the fourth sentence, the writer should have said that Harry “couldn’t care less” about Mary’s health. The positive phrase “could care less” suggests that Harry must care somewhat about Mary’s health if it is possible for him to care even less.

Usually when people use this expression, they intend to suggest that they have no concern at all; thus “couldn’t [or ‘could not’] care less” is the appropriate expression.

Some dictionaries list “could care less” as an alternative phrasing for the same idea, but remember that their job is to tell us how people are using the language, not how they should.

Some people defend “could care less” on the grounds that it is being used sarcastically, but I still don’t think it makes sense, even with one’s tongue firmly in one’s cheek.

There’s More!

Read about other illogical constructions that professional writers need to avoid in this article by guest writer Dr. Ron Cooper.

  1. All of us in the agency wish to express our appreciation to John Doe, whose many contributions we could not hardly do without.
  2. Most people could care less if their grammar is incorrect when they are speaking.
  3. The employees in our office are so use to making duplicates on the photocopy machine that they are paralyzed when it is broken and can hardly get their work done.
  4. We can hardly wait for our vacation in Colorado, for the ski resorts there are suppose to be some of the best in the country.
  1. we COULD HARDLY [or COULD NOT] do without
  2. COULDN’T [or COULD NOT] care less
  3. so USED to making duplicates
  4. SUPPOSED to be some of the best

Copyright 2001 Get It Right. Revised 2020.