Athletic misnegation

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"Can the Angels keep Shohei Ohtani? A payroll crisis looms in Los Angeles", 8/12/2021:

Everything Shohei Ohtani has accomplished this summer is unprecedented: the high-end pitching and high-impact hitting, the takeover of the two days of All-Star events, the marketability. With a season résumé that looks like none other, he'll win the American League's Most Valuable Player Award, having fully stretched the imagination of the Los Angeles Angels' staff — and managers' and executives' with other teams, for that matter — about his future capabilities. […]

He could eventually make the same transition that Babe Ruth made, from a two-way player to a full-time outfielder. "That would be tempting," said one AL manager, grinning at the notion of Ohtani devoting all of his acumen and athleticism to run production. "Can you imagine what he could do?" If Ohtani had 700 plate appearances at his 2021 home run rate, he'd hit 60 homers — and it seems very possible he would have more efficiency as a hitter if that were his only responsibility. He's proved to everyone this year: You cannot underestimate Shohei Ohtani. [emphasis added]

A. K. M. Adam, who sent in the link, notes that "Manifestly, one can’t afford to underestimate Ohtani, but one would think it were pretty easy to underestimate him if one tried."

A few of our many earlier posts on the whole under/over-scalar-negation tangle (featuring, as many things do, interactions with Lila Gleitman):

"Why are negations so easy to fail to miss?", 2/26/2004
"We cannot/must not understate/overstate", 5/6/2004
"Multiplex negatio ferblondiat", 7/13/2007
"Weird logic and bayesian semantics", 7/15/2007
"'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?", 11/6/2008
"Misunderestimation", 4/4/2009
"Gov. Cuomo and our poor monkey brains", 1/21/2011
"The Estimation Game", 4/3/2014
"'Hard to understate the importance'", 3/28/2020

And if you're in search of more, there's our shockingly long list of misnegation posts.



  1. Rodger C said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 8:43 am

    And you can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor.

  2. John Swindle said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 10:42 am

    The baseball example isn’t a straightforward misnegation. “Can’t” is shading into “mustn’t” or “shouldn’t.” Compare “can” and “may.” Also, “underestimate” may have a meaning that’s less scalar than we expect: when it comes to baseball you can’t disregard/overlook/underestimate Shohei Otani.

  3. John Swindle said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 10:45 am

    For Shohei Otani please read Shohei Ohtani.

  4. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 10:58 am

    @John Swindle: You may want to peruse past posts on the subject, esp. "'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?"

  5. KevinM said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 5:57 pm

    Well, you cannot misunderestimate him, anyway.

  6. Viseguy said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 6:08 pm

    I enjoy a good misnegation post as much as the next LL reader. But what, I wonder, is the seemingly endless fascination with them? How many times does the dog have to bite the man before the title becomes "Dog Bites Man"? (Or "Dog Refrains from Biting Man — Not! Again!"?) More to the point, what is the linguistic significance of these errors? Neuro-, psycho-, socio-, or otherwise?

  7. Luke said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 7:53 pm

    Maybe it was intended more in the sense of "it's just not to be done based on what we've seen". Analagous to "you can't do this to me!" "Sure I can, watch me!"

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 8:19 pm

    With this particular phrase, I see no linguistic significance beyond the fact, already established, that it has become an idiom. So those using 'cannot underestimate' in this sense (the only sense in which it is used) are not misnegating even in their minds, I'd say.

    But I don't disagree with the main theme that people's minds do get confused when producing (and sometimes when reading) multiple negations, and I'd attribute this to the fact that there's hardly ever any ambiguity in spoken language, whatever logic says.

    k_over_hbarc at

  9. John Swindle said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 9:45 pm

    @Ben Zimmer: Thanks.

  10. Jerry Packard said,

    August 15, 2021 @ 10:12 pm

    'I can't say enough good things about this candidate.'

  11. Joe said,

    August 16, 2021 @ 9:15 am

    The Angels have been doing a bang up job underusing Ohtani. Even with his stellar numbers, the Angels are just under .50 w/l record.

  12. Robert Coren said,

    August 16, 2021 @ 9:29 am

    @Joe: Well, baseball ain't basketball. One really great player is not enough to carry an otherwise mediocre team.

  13. Nat J said,

    August 16, 2021 @ 10:00 am

    *Is* it an idiom? Does it now have both meanings? Or is it now an error to use the literal meaning? If it has both meanings, can I use both meanings in a single sentence to describe two individuals on the polar ends of the spectrum of talent? "You cannot underestimate X, the best the sport has ever seen; and you cannot underestimate Y, the worst the sport has every seen"?

    And then what about "You cannot overestimate"? Is that also an idiom? With both meanings or just one? Can I describe a single individual (redundantly, but not inconsistently) as someone who "cannot be overestimated; truly, you cannot underestimate him".

  14. John Swindle said,

    August 16, 2021 @ 10:31 am

    To do so would be begging the question.

  15. Cervantes said,

    August 16, 2021 @ 2:04 pm

    "Cannot" very commonly has the meaning of "should not." That's completely standard, and as far as I know has been since time immemorial. "You cannot [can't] drive on the left side of the road," "You can't trade stocks on insider information" and "You can't judge a book by its cover" are all perfectly ordinary, standard, commonplace, everyday English. That's the sense here and it's not even slightly problematic or interesting.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    August 16, 2021 @ 9:22 pm

    Yes, I think there's a good case these specific words are an idiom: they are common, they always (or nearly always) are used in this sense, and it's certainly more common than 'cannot overestimate', the more logical way of saying the intended thing. Further, it is hardly ever noticed as a grammatical error unless one is specifically looking for it: I wouldn't, even though I do notice many other grammatical and usage problems (including 'beg the question').

    The post linked to, "'Cannot underestimate' = 'must not underestimate'?", seems to argue that 'cannot' can substitute for 'must not' or 'should not' only when it carries the meaning of permission; but I think the examples given by Cervantes above falsify that: surely the last, at least, does not mean it isn't allowed, yet substituting 'can' with 'must' or 'should' seems to preserve the meaning (but not 'may', which really does require the implication of permission).

  17. Cervantes said,

    August 17, 2021 @ 9:37 am

    Yes, to clarify, it can mean "should not" in the sense of it isn't allowed, and also the sense that it is not a good idea. That's the sense intended here. (Driving on the wrong side of the road has both senses!)

  18. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 17, 2021 @ 10:12 am

    My understanding of "You can't judge a book by its cover" is that "can't" should be read literally: forming an accurate assessment based on insufficient information is not possible. It may or may not be the case that judging books by their covers is foolish or taboo in some sense, but that's not what the proverb is getting at.

  19. Cervantes said,

    August 17, 2021 @ 11:36 am

    Well, it is physically possible to judge a book by its cover. It's just not a good idea. Just as it's physically possible to underestimate Shohei, but it would be a mistake. Seems like the same basic idea to me.

  20. Gregory Kusnick said,

    August 17, 2021 @ 1:22 pm

    I guess the way I'd say it is that it's physically possible to prejudge a book by it's cover, and what makes that a bad idea is the fact that proper judgment is not possible at that superficial level. That's why the proverb says "can't" rather than "shouldn't".

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