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Someone said:

"couldn't agree any less"

Upon me finding this weird and asking, they told me their intent was "I disagree".

I believe the idiomatic form is "I couldn't ______ more" Where ______ is negative, rejection, etc.

The grammar seems okay, the logic a bit lofty, but is the phrase acceptable in formal or informal English? I think I'm treating the phrase like an expression. You don't alter an expression. It's an expression because it stays the same and is recognizable to express something. So, by altering the phrase in question, does this become wrongful use of language because it is no longer in the form native speakers instantly recognize?

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  • It is impossible to overstate the importance to English of context. A I am assuming that you fully agree with my idea of shooting all the prisoners... ? B "What! I couldn't agree any less with such an action!"
    – Greybeard
    Oct 20, 2020 at 17:32
  • That is such a weirdly phrased response, to I, a native speaker. I have to briefly pause and revise to understand whether its affirmative or not. Edited to add, I just read @jsw29's answer which expressed the same opinion.
    – Will
    Oct 20, 2020 at 20:17

2 Answers 2

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  • So, by altering the phrase in question, does this become wrongful use of language because it is no longer in the form native speakers instantly recognize?*

No, it doesn’t make it wrong. It’s a way to attract attention to the phrase. It might take some time for the reader or listener to figure it out, and thus may be distracting or misleading. If the writer is not fluent, it may be seen as awkwardness rather than intentional varying of a common phrase.

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The problem with 'I couldn't agree any less' is that one may be left wondering: less than what? It could be 'less than I, in fact, agree', which makes the sentence an expression of disagreement. It is possible, however for the sentence to be an expression of agreement: in a context in which somebody has already expressed agreement with something, one could use the sentence intending it to mean 'The reasons for this are so compelling that I couldn't agree with it any less than this other person agrees with it'.

Now, in the abstract, 'I couldn't disagree more' could also be said to give rise to ambiguities: more than what? That wording is, however, much more frequently used as an expression of strong disagreement than 'I couldn't agree any less', so, in practice, people are likely to immediately 'get' what was intended by it. In 'I couldn't agree any less', because it is rarely used, one is more likely to 'hear' the ambiguity; even if the ambiguity is easy to resolve in a particular case, it will add a second or two to one's processing the meaning of the sentence in one's mind.

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