What’s Going On with “Underestimate”?
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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