What’s Going On with “Underestimate”?

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Reader Arthur writes:

I was reading an article about a photographer. It was clear that the writer rated this photographer’s work and legacy very highly. He went on to say that

“It is impossible to underestimate his impact…”

I feel that ‘overestimate’ would have been more appropriate, but others are not so sure. What do you think?

Of course the writer meant “overestimate.”

estimate: verb, To value (subjectively); to attribute value to; to appreciate the worth of; to esteem, hold in (higher or lower) estimation.

overestimate:   trans. To attribute too high an estimated value to (a numerical quantity); to estimate (something) to be larger, better, or more important than it really is; (also) to hold in too high estimation.

under-estimate: verb, To rate or rank too low; to undervalue.
Note, OED hyphenates under-estimate. Merriam-Webster shows it as one word, underestimate.

Judging from a quick web cruise, the error of substituting underestimate for overestimate, especially in the construction beginning “it is impossible to” is widespread.

Here are just three examples I found online:

It’s impossible to underestimate how important George Strait was to country music in the mid-1980s. He’s credited with single-handedly saving the entire genre…

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Roberto Rossellini made three films that helped to lay the foundations of modern cinema: “Rome Open City” (1945), “Paisan” (1946) and “Germany Year Zero” (1948). It’s almost impossible to underestimate the importance of these movies, both for the impact that their startling realism had on the audiences and filmmakers of the time and for the influence they continue to exert on directors.

It is impossible to underestimate how important it is to have a home insurance policy. Unless you have an interest in luxury yachts, your home will be the most expensive purchase you will make in your lifetime.

In each example, the topic being discussed–George Strait, the war movies, and home insurance–are clearly seen as being of great value. While it might be possible to underestimate their value, the intention is to point out that it is impossible to overestimate their value.

I did find one example of underestimate being used correctly:

At this point it’s pretty much impossible to underestimate Palin.

The context was a comment about the likelihood of Sarah Palin’s becoming President. The writer expressed the opinion that Palin has no chance at all. For that reason one can overestimate her chances, but it’s not possible to underestimate them.

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13 thoughts on “What’s Going On with “Underestimate”?”

  1. A post on this very subject.

    “Now Jonny Wilkinson: you can’t overestimate his importance in tonight’s game.”

    At first, I thought Inverdale was wrong. Surely he’d meant underestimate, right? But on analysing, it seems he’s right: if I estimate his importance, then the fact that this estimate cannot ever be too high suggests that he performed pretty well.

    The counter is that we can’t underestimate his performance. And surprisingly, this is equally valid. But the “can’t” brings with it a different meaning.

    * Can’t underestimate: the estimator should not underestimate the importance, or do so at his/her peril
    * Can’t overestimate: there is no way that the estimator could ever overestimate, no matter how hard he tried

  2. To note a correct use of the word ‘underestimate” , read what
    H.L Mencken wrote:
    “It is impossible to underestimate the intelligence of the American public.”

  3. Actually, the way H.L Mencken wrote it was:
    “No one ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

  4. @Phil Dragonetti.

    yes, a lovely phrase, if mean. I had, in my head, that it was;

    Nobody every went broke underestimating …

    But tomato tomato. (Hm, that doesn’t work so well in print).

  5. This is a very interesting topic—so bear with my adding an additional comment.

    The phrase in question is: “It is impossible to underestimate his impact…”
    We have to start with the fact that the writer of this phrase highly valued this photographer’s work.

    If the writer had written “It is impossible to overestimate his impact…”—then he is saying that no matter how high you have previously estimated the impact–the actual, true, impact is even higher.
    This supports the notion that the photographer’s work truly is very valuable.

    Au contraire, to say :“It is impossible to underestimate his impact…”
    means that no matter how low you have previously estimated the impact—the actual, true, impact is even lower.This does not support the notion that the photographer’s work truly is very valuable.

    Therefore—“overestimate” is the correct word to use in this case.

    If the writer had wanted to use the word “underestimate” he should have said something like: “It is very typical to underestimate his work”.—or “One must make sure to not underestimate his work”.


  6. Point well taken and delicately put on underestimating.

    But in these examples I would be more inclined to write “over state” rather than “over estimate”.

    Is there a which is when to cover that?


  7. This reminds me of the saying, “I couldn’t care less,” which has somehow become, “I could care less.”

    I go with “overestimate” on this one in the same way that you’d say, “I couldn’t say enough about the young woman’s abilities.”

  8. An afterthought…

    If we substitute key words in the sentence, the meaning may become clearer.

    Compare: “It is impossible to overestimate his power.”
    “It is POSSIBLE to UNDERESTIMATE his power.

  9. The discussion “What’s Going on with “Underestimate”? reminds me of the similar confusion between the comments “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less.” The first tells us that the speaker actually cares about the topic; if you could care less, then you have some amount of “care” in you. When speakers actually don’t care at all, then it’s not possible to care less than they already do. Therefore, they couldn’t care less.

    One of my pet peeves! I think I have scars on my tongue from biting it whenever I hear this mistake!! 🙂

  10. This reminds me of one of my pet peeves. I hate it when people say “I could care less,” when they mean they care so little about something that they “couldn’t care less.”

  11. Is it possible that we are overestimating the value people place on phrases of value, to have a pet peeve about them getting the phrasing wrong.

    The other related, and very common misused phrase is “cheap at half the price!” – duh! of course it would be cheaper if an item was discounted by 50%.

    The original and correct phrase “cheap at twice the price.” means that even if you have to pay two times as much for an item, you are still getting a bargain.

    I fell we can not overestimate the value of this discussion, but will the commonality of mis-use render correct usage outdated, as per fulsome?

  12. I’ve always used “overstate” instead of “overestimate” when I’m attempting to convey an unobtainable limit.

    “When it comes to longevity, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of breathing.”

    I suppose there’s a different connotation in “stating” versus “estimating” something, but in most contexts the point is rather moot.

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