There was an article titled “The short life and lonely death of Sabrina Seelig” in July 29 New York Times reporting the death of a young woman who was a student of classics at Hunter College. She was carried to a hospital by ambulance after feeling sick, and died there. The article says:

“The family of Ms. Selig, 22, says she suffered an agonizing death because the care she received at a struggling Brooklyn hospital (Wyckoff Heights Medical Center) was indifferent to negligent.”

I thought the expression, “indifferent to negligent” an idiom. I checked NGram. It doesn’t register this phrase, neither “indifferent and negligent,” or “indifference and negligence” which were obviously used in the following ways:

  • Could a husband be indifferent and negligent towards a wife during pregnancy...at a time when she has chosen to bear his offspring in her womb? Can he consider her a liability? -Redif com.

  • President Ilves: volunteers stand like a protective wall against indifference and negligence. Press release from the Office of President of Republic of Estonia 7/12/2012

Is “indifferent to negligent” a simple repetition of synonyms for emphasizing the meaning? Then, how different is “indifferent to negligent” from “indifferent and negligent”?

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    No, it means from indifferent to negligent. I.e, it refers to a scale from poor to bad. – John Lawler Jul 29 '12 at 21:49
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    A similar but subtly different usage would be indifferent if not negligent, where the writer implies that some people (often, including himself) would classify the care as negligent, even though others might say is was merely indifferent. In OP's citation it's feasible some of the family said Ms Selig's care was indifferent, and some said it was negligent. Or perhaps everyone in the family agreed that it covered that range. It wouldn't be likely to affect anyone else's interpretation of the article. – FumbleFingers Jul 29 '12 at 22:06
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    'indifferent and negligent' seems inconsistent to me, in that it feels like you can't be both at the same time. You're either indifferent (don't care one way of the other, do very little) or negligent (doing nothing at all, ignoring altogether). Or to put it a slightly different way, 'indifferent' is a much milder form of 'negligent'. – Mitch Jul 29 '12 at 22:52
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    It doesn't have to be temporal order. It seems to mean care that ranged from poor to bad, without any implied order of occurrence. – John Lawler Jul 30 '12 at 0:41
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    @Mitch: In my mind, that inconstancy helps clarify the usage. I think the writer means that, over the duration of the hospital stay, the care was at times indifferent (at best), and at times negligent (at worst). – J.R. Jul 30 '12 at 11:15

The phrase "indifferent to negligent" is a phrase describing a range of possible adjectives for the given situation. That is, the quote might be rewritten:

the care that Ms. Selig received ranged from indifferent to negligent

The phrase itself isn't idiomatic, but the construction is. It isn't the same as "indifferent and negligent", which pinpoints the two adjectives to describe the care. The to presents a spectrum of ways to describe the care.

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    Probably "indifferent to negligent" would be like: On a scale of 1 to 10, her care was from 3 to 1. Other parts of the scale might be satisfactory, good, excellent. Maybe they would be 5, 7, and 9 on this imaginary scale of care. – GEdgar Jul 29 '12 at 22:03
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    I've always interpreted it to mean "if you viewed her care through rose colored glasses, you'd see the practitioners as indifferent; if you viewed it through a pessimists eyes, it would be seen as negligent" - in this sense, there is only one adjective to describe the care, but that adjective is subjective to whoever is doing the observing and how they would rate it. Slightly different context than the answer, but similar enough that it would be a close cousin. – corsiKa Jul 29 '12 at 22:44
  • A close cousin, not redundancy. – Yoichi Oishi Jul 29 '12 at 23:28
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    If I were to rephrase the sentence to expound upon its meaning I might say, "The care [...] received ranged from merely indifferent to downright negligent." – Jim Jul 30 '12 at 2:22
  • Jim.Thanks. Now it's clear to me, though it gives me a smack of redundancy. – Yoichi Oishi Jul 30 '12 at 22:34

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