'Difficult to understate' correction

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Here the source of the inversion corrects it within a few minutes:

For discussion see
"'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?", 11/6/2008
"Misunderestimation", 4/4/2009
"Underestimate, overestimate, whatever", 3/23/2011
"'…not understating the threat", 6/5/2012
"Overestimating, underestimating, whatever", 1/11/2013
"'Impossible to understate' again", 3/1/2014
"The Estimation Game", 4/3/2014

…and many more


  1. George said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:45 am

    Whatever ambiguity there may be around the meaning of can't, there is no such ambiguity around the means of it is difficult to. So this isn't an interesting mistake; it's just a mistake.

    [(myl) "A mistake", yes — but not "just a mistake".

    First because it's so common: Google Books claims to find more than 10,000 instances of "difficult to understate", and checking the first 30, I find that every single one of them involves the same mistake. (And these are mostly serious and presumably well-edited publications, e.g. Burton Peretti, Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan, 2013 University of Pennsylvania Press: "Prohibition's effect on Manhattan nightlife is difficult to understate: careers, businesses, and time-honored institutions and practices were disrupted continually for thirteen years.")

    And second, because the mistake is so reliably dependent on certain aspects of the meaning: "difficult/hard/unable/etc. to understate/underestimate/etc. …"

    So the ubiquity of this mistake means that sophisticated appeals to modal logic are not the right explanation (or at least not the only or even the main explanation) for examples like "can't understate" or "impossible to underestimate".

    And this leaves us with a very interesting array of mistakes indeed, at least for anyone interested in the psychology of language.]

  2. Rodger C said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 6:43 am

    It's plainly difficult to state, period.

    [(myl) That might be the key to it — maybe at some basic level "it's difficult to (over/under)state the magnitude of X" is just a fancy way to say "X? I can't even", with some random failure-associated words, bigness words, and scalar prepositions thrown in and arranged to resemble an English sentence. Literally, "Words fail me…"

  3. Cervantes said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 7:57 am

    Yes, the subtext could be, "If I had some reason or incentive to understate this, it would be difficult for me to do so because the importance of the issue compels me to do it justice." "It is difficult to understate" is too elliptical a rendering of that to be properly understood, but I suspect that's the underlying brainfart.

  4. Francisco said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 7:58 am

    In addition to the logic mistake it induces, the choice of adjective seems poor to me for another reason. "It is difficult to overstate" implies an effort or a tendency towards inflated statements, while the intended meaning is the opposite, that one tends to understate the matter. Isn't it far better to just say "it is easy to underestimate"?

  5. Mick O said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:50 pm

    The underestimate/overestimate construction adds very little useful information. Why is it so popular these days? Does it trigger some frisson in the minds of internet pundits? I am at a loss.

    There is also a disconnect here. By asking the reader to believe that it is difficult to overstate, he is trying to ground the sentiment among some sort of rational, real-world parameters of belief. Yet, when he adds "in almost every conceivable way" he is destroying that grounding with an outlandish exaggeration. It's a self-defeating tweet, even with the correction.

    I am very grumpy today. Don't mind me.

  6. Rubrick said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 5:48 pm

    At some basic level "it's difficult to (over/under)state the magnitude of X" is just a fancy way to say "X? I can't even"

    That, sir, is why you get the big bucks. Or deserve the big bucks, anyway.

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