"Understatement" misstatement

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Here's the opening to Dahlia Lithwick and Scott Pilutik's piece for Slate, "Lies My Client Told Me" (10/31/17), about a judge ruling that Paul Manafort is not entitled to attorney-client privilege:

It's not an overstatement to characterize the attorney-client privilege as the cornerstone of criminal law, an inviolable right that can and must withstand all manner of legal aggression.

There's an asterisk after the sentence, however, indicating that a correction has been made. At the bottom of the article, a note reads:

*Correction, Oct. 31, 2017: This piece originally misstated that it would not be an understatement to characterize the attorney-client privilege as the cornerstone of criminal law. It would not be an overstatement.

It's remarkable that a correction was made in the first place, since misnegations involving understate(ment) are so common that they hardly even get noticed these days. Last August, Mark Liberman shared a tweet by Los Angeles Times correspondent Matt Pearce in which he quickly corrected his use of "difficult to understate," but such second thoughts are exceedingly rare. Again and again, the sort of thing that one would want to identify as "not an overstatement" is routinely called "not an understatement," at Slate and elsewhere.

Here are a couple of other recent examples of "not an understatement" from Slate where "not an overstatement" would be more apt:

It's not an understatement to say that [Twitter's 140-character] limit has shaped a new medium of communication, one built on self-contained bursts of information or opinion that appear rapid-fire in users' feeds. (Will Oremus, 9/26/17)

"I think this is going to send shock waves" through the industry, says Ellen Stofan, NASA's former chief scientist. "These guys [at Blue Origin] are serious. They've put their money where their mouth is." That's not an understatement. The BE-4 could play a significant role solving two of the space industry's most pressing problems. (Neel V. Patel, 10/25/17)

[Update, Nov. 2: Now that I've pointed out them out, Slate has corrected these two articles as well.]

This is by no means intended to single out the Slate crew — I've frequently been published by Slate and have found their editorial standards to be generally excellent. The prevalence of misnegated "not an understatement" extends far and wide. Here are some other recent media examples:

It is definitely not an understatement to say that Pete DeKever is one of Penn High School's best extra-curricular coaches; the kids learned from the best. (South Bend Tribune, 10/8/17)

"This is easily the most groundshaking mortgage rule of all time, and that's not an understatement," Mr. McLister said in an interview. (Marketwatch, 10/17/17)

Seven years in the making and a relationship survived trial, prison time and the revamping of Wop's brand, it's not an understatement to say that this wedding was a BFD to all involved. (BET, 10/18/17)

Halloween Queen calls herself a miracle worker in the post, which is not an understatement in the slightest. (Bustle, 10/20/17)

When simplification and shouting win out over the thoughtful processes that have historically led to some of our nation's milestone achievements, it is not an understatement to say that our future is at risk. (HuffPost, 10/27/17)

"Not an understatement" is particularly common on sites that solicit user reviews. Here's a sampling of raves from TripAdvisor:

Best sandwich of my life – no that is not an understatement (link)
Majestic is not an understatement! (link)
Perfect is not an understatement (link)
This "Excellent" rating is not an understatement! (link)
Absolutely Amazing an thats not an understatement (link)

…and from Yelp:

Big ass slice is not an understatement. (link)
Since most of my clients come from my website, it is not an understatement to say that Chris has been an essential part of my business success. (link)
Sha-Sha of Diamond Facez IS THE BEST HANDS DOWN. This is not an understatement at all. (link)
It is not an understatement to say this is one of the nicest, cleanest, most comfortable well-run dental practices anywhere. (link)
Kerri owns Classic Cape Cod Flair Photography and she is incredible… this is not an understatement. (link)

In fact, it's hard to find any use of "not an understatement" that is not misnegated, whether it's coming from actress Katie McGrath ("It's not an understatement to say that I owe everything as an actor to Merlin") or from New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia ("It's not an understatement to say that, without you, we could not have developed this strong plan for New York State"). In all such cases, we're dealing with a judgment that could be construed as too far over the line — typically a superlative of some sort, as in an expression of praise — but the writer or speaker wants to underline that the superlative is not a hyperbole, i.e., not an overstatement. And yet we habitually get tripped up by the negatives and say the exact opposite of that. As with other cases of misnegation, as Mark Liberman has observed, it's all just too much for our "poor monkey brains."

Relevant past posts:

…and many more posts on the more general phenomenon of misnegation are listed here.



7 Comments

  1. Dana A said,

    November 1, 2017 @ 3:47 pm

    I had thought that, rather than a misnegation, it meant "this seeming hyperbole is actually the least hyperbolic I can be without understating the case" so that "not an understatement" became accurate.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 1, 2017 @ 4:45 pm

    FWIW, I would personally view it as an understatement "to characterize the attorney-client privilege as the cornerstone of criminal law" at least if in context that were taken to suggest that by contrast it's NOT of equally cornerstone-like significance in lots of other areas of law. So if on that reading the claim being made is indeed an understatement, it's definitely not an overstatement (and definitely not not an understatement).

  3. D.O. said,

    November 1, 2017 @ 9:46 pm

    A question from a non-native English speaker. Is it correct to call a principle "the cornerstone" if there is a number of other equally highly regarded cornerstones? Such as, innocence before proven guilt, right not to testify against oneself, right to a jury trial, right to cross-examine the witnesses and so forth. Maybe attorney-client privilege is the one especially rarely violated in practice, but as a matter of principle, it does not seem to stand out.

  4. Matt said,

    November 1, 2017 @ 10:19 pm

    Perhaps it's time to accept "not an understatement" as a fixed formula that was originally an error but now just plain means the opposite of what it literally says, like "I could care less"?

  5. maidhc said,

    November 2, 2017 @ 12:54 am

    D.O.: From a grammatical point of view, if you say "the cornerstone", there can only be one. From an architectural point of view, there could be four cornerstones on a rectangular building, but then each one would be "a cornerstone".

    Except that often there is a small ceremony when the first cornerstone is laid. It has the date carved on it, and frequently it is hollow and some keepsakes are placed inside. It has been suggested that this is a dim reflection of the days long ago when a human sacrifice was performed when laying a foundation. Frequently this first cornerstone is referred to as "the cornerstone", implying that it is more important than the others.

    I would be happier to hear something like "The right to a jury trial is a cornerstone of criminal law", and if the person went on to list four or five other cornerstones, I would not raise an objection.

    Calling something a cornerstone implies that it was important right from the beginning.

  6. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 2, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

    Dana A: I think your reading is ingenious and generous, but it's hard for me to believe. The two corrections Ben Zimmer mentioned changed "understatement" to "overstatement"; they didn't say anything like "The least I can say without understatement…"

  7. Guy said,

    November 2, 2017 @ 7:40 pm

    @maidhc

    "D.O.: From a grammatical point of view, if you say "the cornerstone", there can only be one."

    I'm being absurdly nitpicky, but no. It might be that there is only one relevant to the discourse – "there's a mark on the cornerstone" (the only one visible) – and definite articles can sometimes also be used when which one is irrelevant – "he was poked in the eye."

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