Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: underestimate.

underestimate. “Underestimate” is often misused for “overestimate” when writers intend the phrase “impossible to overestimate.” The misuse renders the phrase illogical, even ludicrous — e.g.: o “Claiming ‘it’s impossible to underestimate [read ‘overestimate’] the timidity of professors,’ Mansfield [Harvey C. Mansfield Jr.] worries that too many scholars are studiously avoiding teaching the hot topics of the day.” Anthony Flint, “Mansfield’s Leaving Would Be Harvard’s Loss,” Boston Globe, 6 June 1993, at 41. o “He also says it’s impossible to underestimate [read ‘overestimate’] the value of positive role models for African American children.” Michael Abramowitz, “Split Could Bar Election of Black Election in P.G.,” Wash. Post, 15 Aug. 1994, at D1. o “‘It is impossible to underestimate [read ‘overestimate’] the amount of damage the health care bill did in shaping the image of President Clinton as a big-government proponent,’ Mr. From said at a news conference.” Richard L. Berke, “Centrist Democrats’ Poll Warns Clinton of Unrest,” N.Y. Times, 18 Nov. 1994, at A10. This error is akin to using *”could care less” for “couldn’t care less.” Sometimes, though, the writer really means “underestimate” — e.g.: “A little subtlety would have greatly enhanced ‘Hamburger Hill’s’ potential for tragic irony, but the film makers are rigorously dedicated to the proposition that it’s impossible to underestimate the intelligence of moviegoers.” Kevin Thomas, “‘Hamburger Hill’: On the Lean Side,” L.A. Times, 28 Aug. 1987, § 6, at 1. Language-Change Index — *”impossible to underestimate” for “impossible to overestimate”: Stage 1. *Invariably inferior form. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Most of us are too easily satisfied with what we write, and do not burn enough.” S.P.B. Mais, The Writing of English 124 (1935).
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