"No underestimating the headache"

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Ellen Eldridge and Raisa Habersham, "I-85 collapses after massive fire: ‘The entire bridge is compromised’", Atlanta Journal-Constitution 3/31/2017:

The bridge on I-85 northbound just south of Ga. 400 near Piedmont Road collapsed about 7 p.m., Atlanta fire spokesman Sgt. Cortez Stafford confirmed.

No injuries to motorists or first responders were reported.  

Officials said they still don't know how long it will take to fix the bridge, but they agree there is no underestimating the headache that awaits commuters.

For a discussion of the semantic and pragmatic issues involved in this puzzlingly common scalar inversion, see "The Estimation Game", 4/3/2014, and the links therein.  And note that the variant "there is no underestimating" — in place of "cannot underestimate" — bolsters the argument that a quirk of modal logic is not the explanation for such examples, or at least is not the whole story — there really is some misnegation going on.

[h/t Tim Leonard]



  1. bzfgt said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    I always forgive something like "cannot (underestimate)" because it could be a sloppy stab at "must not (underestimate)"…

  2. bzfgt said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 9:29 am

    If you really wanted to be charitable you could say maybe they mean "There must be no underestimating the headache," I suppose…

  3. bzfgt said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 9:40 am

    Like a rule that says "There is no underestimating the headache. There is no cutting in line…these are not allowed" or something.

  4. Jonfrum said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 10:21 am

    It certainly looks like misnegation to me. Somewhere along the line, the writer must have heard this construction. I suspect that when constructing the sentence, any logic/consistency test is replaced by an 'insert here' function, where the remembered phrase get dumped into place. Certainly there must be more than one way to construct a sentence on the fly, and in this case, the logic tester gets overridden.

  5. Richard said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 10:55 am

    Is this hard to understand?
    I took it to mean
    We are not underestimating the problem this will cause to commuters
    We know how much trouble this will cause.

  6. Joyce Melton said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 12:54 pm

    They probably mean "there is no way to over estimate" but in seeking the strongest possible phrasing the double negative of "no under-" feels stronger.

  7. bobbie said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 2:04 pm

    It's a clusterf**k, not matter how you estimate it.

  8. Mark S said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 9:01 pm

    I've just come across another misnegation:
    "There’s not a single person who can’t forget Jadzia Dax!" from http://www.dailyforest.com/entertainment/star-trek-cast/14

  9. Aaron Toivo said,

    April 1, 2017 @ 11:01 pm

    I would think that preference for strong and idiomatic phrasings is relevant; in particular I see an OT-like possibility here whereby constraints against weak or wordy phrasing could be stronger than the constraint against misnegation. Of the first part, "there is no Xing" is more attention-grabbing than "should/can/must not X" or "is not to be Xed" and fits more easily into a "they agree" phrase, whereas for the second part, "underestimate" is more commonplace and less of "big word" than "overestimate" is, despite their parallel formation. So each phrasing may simply be what won the local contest for its portion of the sentence.

  10. Francis Boyle said,

    April 2, 2017 @ 6:55 am

    Given the particular nature of the event (that no one was harmed and the physical damage was minimal) I would parse the statement as something like "you might be tempted to underestimate the consequences but we're not doing that (and you shouldn't too)". So no misnegation, just a typical example of agent-less bureaucratese.

  11. Rose Eneri said,

    April 2, 2017 @ 8:32 am

    Francis Boyle's "(and you shouldn't too)" sounds odd to me. I would say (and you shouldn't either). "Either" for the negative and "too" for the positive (and you should too.)

  12. Richard Hershberger said,

    April 2, 2017 @ 6:51 pm

    This is from 1888. The context is that two star baseball players, White and Rowe, are challenging their being sold to other teams, which was a new and controversial practice at that time. The writer if Frank Brunell, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer as well as a correspondent for The Sporting Life:

    "The move of Jack Rowe and Jim White in connection with the Buffalo Club cannot be underestimated." The Sporting Life December 26, 1888 p. 4 col. 5.

  13. DWalker07 said,

    April 3, 2017 @ 11:32 am

    I think we're misunderestimating how hard this is…

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