"Hard to understate"

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Nick Wingfield, "Microsoft Pins Xbox One Hopes on Titanfall, a Sci-Fi Shooting Game", NYT 3/9/2014:

It’s hard to understate how incredibly important Titanfall is for Xbox,” Yusuf Mehdi, chief marketing and strategy officer for devices and studios at Microsoft, said in an interview.

If it's not clear to you why this is semantically and psycholinguistically interesting, see here.

As previously noted, it's surprisingly easy to get this backwards. In the current Google News index, "hard to understate" gets 16 hits, of which 10 remain after duplicates are removed:

It’s hard to understate just how much this development will mean to St. Albert. At the very least, it will employ hundreds of people and generate a lot of tax revenue for the City. [link]

It's hard to understate just how unfathomably bad the Utes were just two years ago. They were one of the worst teams in conference history, and only the typically strong home court advantage that altitude and travel creates kept them from an 0-18 run in conference. [link]

When facing the challenge of the Cold War (or even the Nazi threat that preceded it), there was no certain victory on the horizon. It's hard to understate the value of victory over such a threat to human survival, which still seemed impossible as late as 1988, yet then became gloriously inevitable by 1989. [link]

But it's hard to understate how bullish most people are when assessing North America's, and particularly the United States' energy future. At an event in Washington, D.C., in February, Donilon summed it up best: "This really does send a powerful message," he told his audience, "that the United States has the resources and the resolve to be the preeminent power going forward." [link]

The Fremont plant is capable of delivering half a million vehicles every year – the same amount of battery packs the gigafactory is predicted to provide in 2017. Given that Tesla expects to build 35,000 vehicles this year, Elon Musk’s ambition is hard to understate. [link]

It’s hard to understate just how badly Earth Defense Force has failed to take advantage of its own cult status. It’s not only missed the boat, it’s failed to find the harbour, or indeed the front door. [link]

McKeon claimed the biggest uncertainties are "diplomatic" and "moral." He said that, despite ongoing problems getting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a vital security agreement, it's "hard to understate the diplomatic successes of the past several years." [link]

His films tend to age well because they were made with complete conviction, and it’s hard to understate the value they place on human dignity. [link]

It’s hard to understate the importance of battery efficiency in mobile. Battery life is often the bottleneck for new technologies — the first 4G LTE phones, for example, were battery killers — and that’s not going to change given that radical new battery technology is years away. [link]

Dade said the visa issue has caused a big rift in relations between Canada and Mexico. “It’s hard to understate the degree of anger in Mexico about this… The man on the street in Mexico doesn’t pay much attention to this, but in the circles that matter – business circles, diplomatic circles – it’s been a huge setback to the relationship,” he said. [link]

All ten of these are upside-down. "It's hard to understate the extent to which X has property P" always (in these examples anyhow) means "X has property P to an extraordinarily large degree", even though in that case, it should be all too easy to understate the extent to which X has property P.  There are no examples where "It's hard to understate how important X is" has its natural meaning, namely that "no matter how little importance you assign to X, you will probably not have understated how utterly without importance it actually is — you really have to exert yourself to accurately characterize the triviality of X."

In comparison, "hard to overstate" gets 126 results in the same index. Many of these are duplicates, but there's still an order of magnitude more. I haven't checked all 126 of them, but all the examples on the first couple of pages are right-side up, e.g.

The Chicago Tribune praised it as an eye-popping finale. "It's hard to overstate the achievements of this concluding fight, which is the reason 'Rocky' has the aroma of a long-term Broadway survivor," it said. [link]

It is hard to overstate Oreo's popularity in Old Town Fort Collins. People stop by the hotel just to see her: adults on their way to work and kids on their way to school. She even has her own Facebook page with 300 friends. [link]

It's hard to overstate Hoeness's contribution to Bayern over five decades.  "He is the soul of the club," said Edmund Stoiber, former minister-president of Bavaria, former candidate to be German chancellor and head of the club's management board. [link]

AMT emphasised the structural advances in the EMs since the 1990s, saying “it is hard to overstate what a remarkable achievement it was” for the EMs to have survived the 2008 financial crash virtually unscathed. [link]

 From time to time, I've observed that there are four types of explanation available for phenomena like this:

  1. Our poor monkey brains just can't deal with complex combinations of certain logical operators;
  2. The connection between English and modal logic may involve some unexpected ambiguities;
  3. Negative concord is alive and well in English (or in UG);
  4. Odd things become idioms or at least verbal habits ("could care less"; "fail to miss"; "still unpacked").

As far as I can see, explanations  of types (2) and (3) are not available for things in the category
hard/difficult/impossible to understate/underestimate/undervalue.
This leaves some combination of (1) and (4), where (4) in this case would be a lexicalized form of (1).



  1. richardelguru said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 6:03 am

    "I'm just so, so, so excited about Titanfall that it's impossible for me to correctly judge its importance: it's easy to be foolish and overstate it and really hard for me to be cautious and understate it"


    [(myl) Respect, man. Clever.]

  2. Zizoz said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 6:19 am

    I think that should be "there are no examples of the form "X is completely trivial — it's hard to understate how important X is"."

    [(myl) True, though the function of the adjective in that construction is mainly to name the scale, and secondarily (and not always effectively) to indicate which way is metaphorically "up". Thus sometimes a default direction may override the one indicated by the choice of e.g. important vs. unimportant. Anyhow, I've removed the un- and elaborated the explanation, I hope in the right direction…]

  3. Jonathan Badger said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 9:25 am

    Besides presumably mistaken usages, there is always the use of the the inherent ambiguity in such constructions, as in the standard joke about recommendation letters — is a line like "I cannot recommend Joe too highly" praising Joe or criticizing him?

  4. Julian Hook said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 11:49 am

    Perhaps this was Zizoz's point, but I believe MYL is guilty of an upside-down construction himself when he writes

    "There are no examples where 'It's hard to understate how important X is' has its natural meaning, namely that 'no matter how little importance you assign to X, you will probably not have understated how utterly without importance it actually is … .'"

    If you understate the extent to which something is utterly without importance, doesn't that mean you're overstating its importance?

    [(myl) Indeed — the question is, which direction is up? If there's a scale of importance that runs from 1 (completely unimportant) to 10 (maximally important), then if the actual importance of something is 1, it's hard (in fact impossible) to understate the importance by assigning an integer importance-value. So if you say this same thing has importance 2, you've overstated its importance — but perhaps you've also understated its unimportance?

    As confusing as this issue is, I don't think it's directly relevant to most of the cited examples, where the things whose value is being over-/under-stated are positive quantities for which it's clear which way is up: "how important", "the value of victory", "how bullish most people are", "Musk's ambition", "the diplomatic successes", "the value they place on human dignity", etc. And in those where the scale is in some sense upside down: "how unfathomably bad the Utes were", "how badly Earth Defense Force has failed", I think the problem continues to work the same way. In simple sentences with such complements, understate continues to point to less extreme (i.e. in these cases, less bad) values: "When you said they were mediocre, you understated (NOT overstated) how spectacularly bad the Utes actually were"; etc. As a result, when something is as bad as it can possibly be, it's (again) easy to understate how bad it is, and hard to overstate how bad it is.]

  5. MaryKaye said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 11:57 am

    I was singing the theme song from the Portal video game the other day, and realized I had no idea whether the lyrics are "hard to understate my satisfaction" or "hard to overstate my satisfaction." The two phrases apparently parse *exactly the same* for me. Also, the song is so sarcastic that either meaning would work! Complete confusion in the monkey brain. (Lyrics pages say it's "overstate.")

    (This song is awesome in ASL, by the way. Highly recommended. Can someone who speaks ASL comment on how that phrase gets translated?)

    [(myl) For those who don't know it:


  6. Mara K said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 1:56 pm

    Well, we do what we must because we can.

  7. Rubrick said,

    March 19, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    I was scooped by richardelguru, but from what I've seen it has indeed been difficult for the media to understate Titanfall's importance — I haven't seen anyone manage it so far.

  8. Gregory Kusnick said,

    March 20, 2014 @ 12:25 am

    My favorite in this genre is "I can't overemphasize this enough," which gets a surprisingly large number of hits on Google.

  9. San Fran Sam said,

    March 21, 2014 @ 5:29 pm

    I couldn't care less. Or is that more?

    Excuse me while i peel a banana.

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