"Impossible to understate" again

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MSNBC Hardball with Chris Matthews 2/26/2014:

It's been uh nearly impossible to understate the far right's hatred
of President Obama's health care law.

Among our dozens of posts on misnegation — the confusions arising from our poor monkey brain's inability to deal with combinations of negations, modals, and scalar expressions — there are a dozen dealing with (lack of) ability to under (or over) state (or estimate):

"We cannot/must not understate/overstate", 5/6/2004
"Overstating understatement", 6/22/2004
"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

Chris Matthews is not alone — the current Google News index has seven hits for "impossible to understate", and all of them technically mean the opposite of what they say:

For a number of reasons it is almost impossible to understate the importance of the jobs numbers as an indicator of economic health …
It's almost impossible to understate how much Canadians love hockey.
It is impossible to understate just how fit and committed the players have to be simply to survive until half-time, let alone the end of the season.
It is impossible to understate what an asset the WLU Opera program, and the faculty of music in general, are for the cultural life of our community.
It's impossible to understate Kromah's value to the team.
There’s so many groups that embed and imbue their values upon gaming, and gaming imbues and embeds its values upon those groups in turn, that make it nearly impossible to understate its complexity.
It is impossible to understate the danger the industry faces from the miserable experience and cavalier approach to privacy to which research participants are subjected.

 Similarly for "difficult to understate":

This is accurate and it is difficult to understate the influence that such writers have had in a state that is very urban, and where newspapers exert an enormous influence.
Toure’s influence is difficult to understate: Chelsea showed that if you can keep him from linking up play from back to front — and then exploit the gaps he leaves behind him when he roams forward — you can get at City’s soft underbelly.
It's difficult to understate what a discless version of the Xbox One at such a price point — one that would then reroute all game purchases through the Xbox Live marketplace — would be for the industry.
It’s difficult to understate the importance of recruiting in college football; the foundation of a college football program is built in recruiting, and competing in the SEC requires bringing in talent at the highest level.

Some readers are sure to wonder how a descriptive linguist can remain convinced that 100% of the users of a certain construction are wrong.

The answer (anyhow, an answer) is in the linked posts — especially this one and this one.



  1. dw said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

    If "impossible to understate" is wrong, then shouldn't "could care less" also be wrong?

    [(myl) "Could care less" is an idiom — its non-compositional meaning doesn't generalize to "able to care less", "possible to care less", "could be less concerned", etc., except as a joke.

    In contrast, all the parallel ways of framing "impossible to understate" work exactly the same way: "difficult to understate", "hard to understate", "unable to understate", "cannot understate", "cannot be understated", etc., along with the analogous phrases with "underestimate", "undervalue", etc.

    And a similar confusion attends variants of the phrase "nobody ever went broke by under-/over-estimating the X of Y".

    This question is discussed at somewhat greater length here.]

  2. John Roth said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 7:41 pm

    I think "could care less" was originally ironic in that bastion of irony, New York City, and then escaped. Could be mistaken about that, it's just an impression. Unfortunately, it' s now taken on the status of an idiom.

    I sometimes underscore it: "I could care less, but I'm not sure how."

  3. John Roth said,

    March 1, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    Back on topic, might it be possible to analyze that as an example of negative concord? It's not supposed to exist in the Standard dialects of English, however.

    [(myl) We've discussed this idea from time to time, e.g. here, as an explanation for some kinds of misnegation. But I don't think that it applies in this case, since the problem is evident in constructions with no negations as such, e.g. "difficult to understate", where the effect simply hinges on the interaction of two words involving scale directions (difficult/easy and overstate/understate). (See also here.)]

  4. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    March 2, 2014 @ 3:26 am

    I suppose the sentence could make sense if we take "impossible to understate" as meaning something like "impossible to be so blind as to understate". Like how "it's impossible to miss X" doesn't mean that X doesn't exist.

    (But I favor your "our poor monkey brain" hypothesis, since we're perfectly capable of understanding what's meant, even without coming up with a justification of how the sentence could achieve that meaning.)

  5. hector said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 4:12 am

    It is, however, quite possible to overstate how much Canadians love hockey. The media, in particular our national broadcaster, for which televised hockey is a major profit centre, do it all the time.

    "Two-thirds of the adult population follow the game, with one-quarter (24%) saying they love hockey and consider themselves to be “huge fans”, and another four in ten (42%) who “watch occasionally.” One quarter (23%) say they are not really interested, while one in ten (10%) actively dislike the sport."

    So, basically, a third of the population doesn't give a crap, and four in ten "watch occasionally."



  6. Gene Callahan said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

    What the heck is up with the constant harping on "monkey brains" in these posts?! Do dolphin brains do this better? Is it that before the theory of evolution, no one realized that people make mistakes when speaking? Are grammatical errors supposed to be a confirmation of materialist metaphysics?

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 3, 2014 @ 5:05 pm

    "Are grammatical errors supposed to be a confirmation of materialist metaphysics?"

    In a sense, yes, just as the recurrent laryngeal nerve is taken to be evidence in favor of incremental evolution and against intelligent design. We make such errors as a consequence of the fact that our brains are not perfect language-producing machines, but have been adapted from "monkey brains" evolved for other purposes.

  8. Stephen Llewellyn said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 11:31 am

    Under/Over estimate suffers the same dreadful fate. Don't people think?

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 4, 2014 @ 12:04 pm

    The alternative view might be that perhaps in prelapsarian times when Adam and Eve spoke the Edenic language (whatever that might have been . . .) they made no such errors, so it's just that our language faculty like all of our other faculties has been rendered cloudy and imperfect by the Fall.

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