Underestimate, overestimate, whatever

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From ABC World News, 3/22/2011, in a segment on the rescue of the downed American F-15 pilots in Libya, Diane Sawyer observes (about 6:55 into the program):

And it is hard to imagine
or to underestimate or overestimate
what it took in those heart-pounding moments when the pilots had to eject
the incredible velocity of that

We've often noted the difficulties that people have in keeping track of multiple negative or scalar words  in hypothetical or generic situtations. Ben Zimmer noted an example a couple of months ago ("Gov. Cuomo and our poor monkey brains", 1/21/2011), and a long list of related posts can be found here.

In today's example, Diane Sawyer apparently realizes while speaking that she might have pointed her estimation difficulties in the wrong direction, so she neatly hedges her bets by using both words.

If you're interested in the logic of under- and over-estimation, good places  to start would be "Why are negations so easy to fail to miss?", 2/26/2004; "Weird logic and Bayesian semantics", 7/15/2007;  "'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?", 11/6/2008; "No wux is too dax to be zonged", 11/28/2009.


  1. Victor Mair said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 9:38 am

    Just the title made me laugh uproariously.

  2. pj said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 11:12 am

    Wow – it's not even like she says 'or overestimate' as a correction, realising her mistake; it's more like she's not confident either way. At least there's certainly no case for 'cannot underestimate'='must not underestimate' here, with 'it's hard to … underestimate'.
    And of course by hedging her bets and trying to avoid saying the opposite of what she meant, she's ended up with something that's nonsensically self-contradictory anyway: that it's hard to imagine what it took – but it's nonetheless not hard to estimate it exactly correctly.

  3. Dan K said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    I especially enjoyed the ironic "hedges her bets." I don't know if English has a word for the opposite of hedging one's bets (painting oneself into a corner?), but I do like the picture if Diane Sawyer as a not-so-savvy gambler.

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    Stopping at "gambler"?

  5. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 11:57 am

    Actually, "going for broke" or "all in" come pretty close to being the opposite of "hedging one's bet".

  6. Ray Dillinger said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    No, what she's done is more than going for broke. When you go for broke there is a possibility you could win.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

    Most of us, I suspect, are conditioned to acknowledge a correction in the process of making it. We'll throw in an oops, excuse me, or something. We also um and pause and forget to speak in complete sentences. A TV journalist, OTOH, is ruthlessly trained not to um and pause and to speak in complete sentences as much as possible. What I'm hearing in the clip is Sawyer recognizing the mistake, supplying the correction, and moving on with no acknowledgment that she's done so. It's as if, had she been word processing, she simply deleted the original and replaced it with the correction, and forgot that the event ever happened. Perhaps as listeners we too are expected to accept that the event never happened. And maybe for most listeners, that is in fact the way such moments are processed.

    I'm pretty sure I remember Dan Rather acknowledging corrections with an excuse me or the equivalent. He's a bit folksy, though, where Sawyer is (or affects to be) more urbane.

  8. Mark Mandel said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 3:07 pm

    So was she misunderestimating, missing her overestimate, neither, both, or other?

  9. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 9:13 pm

    Well, Ray Dillinger, I think Ms Sawyer expected at least one of her terms to "win". But that aside, perhaps the opposite of "hedging one's bet" is a "naked straddle" in which the only win is when neither choice is correct, and the potential for loss is unlimited when one choice or the other is correct. The more correct, the greater the loss.

  10. Chris Waters said,

    March 26, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

    If she were speaking ex tempore, then the enunciation definitely sounds odd to me, but if she was reading prepared material, then I think that Spell Me Jeff's analysis fits very well: a deliberately unemphasized correction.

    It may seem odd to misread "overestimate" as "underestimate", but not entirely implausible, especially if you're in the habit of trying to avoid looking at a sheet of paper as much as possible, in order to keep your eyes on the camera.

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