"Hard to understate the importance"

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Peter Beinart, "Trump’s Break With China Has Deadly Consequences", The Atlantic 3/28/2020:

Now that COVID-19 is sweeping across the United States, cooperation between Washington and Beijing remains essential. “It’s hard to understate the importance of the U.S.-China relationship in getting through this,” Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me.

Noah Dietterich, who sent in the example, wrote:

Surely if is something is "essential" then its importance is easy to understate, and hard to overstate. But I did have to read it several times to be certain.

As we've often observed ("No post too obscure to escape notice"), we humans have a hard time evaluating the combination of hypotheticals and scalar predicates.

If you want to dive further into this psycholinguistic muddle, you might start with "The estimation game", 4/3/2014.


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    March 28, 2020 @ 4:17 pm

    I have trouble even earlier than that : "Now" that …, co-operation … "remains essential". For me, a leading "Now" would require something along the lines of "is even more essential", while a later "remains essential" would require a leading "Despite" or similar …

  2. Wally w said,

    March 28, 2020 @ 5:22 pm

    Did you mean to have underestimate in the title and understate in the body?

    [(myl) No – fixed now.]

  3. Adrian Boutel said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 3:15 am

    Might it be hard to underestimate because the high level of importance is extremely obvious? (Or hard to understate because the high level of importance is difficult to deny.)

  4. Rose Eneri said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 8:19 am

    Linguistics aside, I'm having a hard time with the logic of Inglesby's statement. If COVID19 is already in the US and the US has already closed its borders to people coming in from China (and I believe China has closed its borders to entry from the US), I fail to see any need at all for cooperation between the two countries.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 8:34 am

    Sharing of information, Rose ? Would you not classify that as "co-operation" ?

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 8:37 am

    I think he meant to say, "It's hard to understate the unimportance…"

  7. David Douglas ROBERTSON said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 4:07 pm

    Not sure if this historical example has been brought up on LanguageLog yet; it's just come up in my Facebook feed. The "Unrighteous Bible" edition of 1653 famously contains a typo that escaped all the proofreaders, surely because it's a misnegation:

    "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall inherit the Kingdom of God?"

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