Misunderestimation of the month

« previous post | next post »

"Scottish parliament to seek new independence vote despite UK government rebuff", Reuters 3/22/2017:

Holding a non-binding referendum would be damaging, argues Stephen Tierney, Professor of Constitutional Theory at Edinburgh Law School, because it would not provide certainty in a highly divisive situation.  

"The central importance of commonly agreed rules and a neutral referee in a situation of deep disagreement when the stakes are high cannot be under-estimated," he said.

In our dauntingly long list of misnegation posts, you'll find at least these on the scalar estimation problem:

"We cannot/must not understate/overstate" 5/26/2004
"Multiplex negatio ferblondiat" 7/14/2007
"Weird logic and Bayesian semantics" 7/15/2007
"'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'" 11/6/2008
"Misunderestimation" 4/4/2009
"Gov. Cuomo and our poor monkey brains", 1/21/2011
"… not understating the threat", 6/5/2012
"(Not) Underestimating the Irish Famine", 9/16/2012
"Overestimating, underestimating, whatever", 1/11/2013
"CIA unable to underestimate the effect of drone war", 4/7/2013
"Misnegation of the week", 5/17/2013
"'Impossible to understate' again", 3/1/2014
"'Hard to understate'", 3/19/2014
"The Estimation Game", 4/3/2014
"Another misunderestimator", 5/9/2014
"Hyperbolic scalar indifference", 7/14/2015

[h/t Paul Kay]



  1. Johan P said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 11:30 am

    Could he, rather than the misnegation "cannot be overestimated" mean "should not be underestimated" in this case?

    [(myl) In these cases, you can reinterpret the modal rather than flipping the scale direction — see here and here among others in the list of past posts for discussions of this idea.]

  2. Jonfrum said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

    I can't help thinking that at least some of these errors come about as a result of people attempting to appear a step more erudite than they are.

    That is, if the author/editor wrote "The central importance of commonly agreed rules," there would probably be no error in finishing the idea with "cannot be over-estimated.'

    But, while adding "and a neutral referee" and "in a situation of deep disagreement" and "when the stakes are high," their poor noodles just couldn't keep track of it all. Verbosity comes at a price – or rather, a cost.

  3. Joe said,

    March 22, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

    @myl: So this example is, in fact, a "cannot" that means "should not". Is this still an error? Can we stop calling it a misnegation?

    [(myl) I'd say that "cannot" in cases like this may be meant to mean "must not", perhaps reflecting the modal-logic equivalence between "necessarily not" and "not possibly". Against this view is the fact that "cannot" and "must not" are not generally interchangeable, and the fact that along with "cannot underestimate" we have things like "hard to underestimate", "difficult to underestimate", etc., for which no modal-logic excuse is available.]

  4. BZ said,

    March 23, 2017 @ 10:36 am

    Is "commonly agreed rules" ok in British English? For me in the US it must be "commonly agreed upon rules" as "agree" is not transitive

  5. Philip John Anderson said,

    March 23, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

    "Commonly agreed rules" is fine here, since agree can be transitive in British English, and it sounds more natural to me. To agree upon the rules suggests picking and choosing from an existing set, whereas people can agree any rules they like, provided they are in agreement.

  6. Mike D said,

    April 2, 2017 @ 3:02 pm

    The traditional misteak is such as

    "The far-reaching influence of the 39 Articles in Protestant faith cannot be underestimated. "

    Where /perhaps/ "must not be underestimated" was being groped towards.

RSS feed for comments on this post