Which is the correct expression - "hard to understate" or "hard to overstate" when trying to use for emphasis? Searching on Google, both expressions appear popular but overstate has about 10x the results.

For example, the Washington Post writes the sentence "It would be hard to understate the positive effect the manufacturer has made in the area." where the effect was legitimately very positive. This seems counter intuitive.

Is either variant correct in the same way "could/couldn't care less" are both common expressions?

2 Answers 2


We correctly use "hard to overstate" about things which are at, or near, the maximum or high end of some scale. It is hard to overstate the danger of touching high-voltage wires. It is hard to overstate the destructive power of an atomic bomb.

We use "hard to understate" about things which are at, or near, the minimum or lower end of some scale. It is hard to understate the amount of fun there is to be had at a funeral. It was hard to understate what you could see from the cheap seats at a Neil Diamond concert.

It has frequently been remarked by students of language how often people get these around the wrong way, or use 'understate' when they mean 'overstate', for example here and here. Similar topic ("cannot/must not underestimate") here A Google search for "hard to understate" (with quote marks) mostly returns examples of misuse.

  • 1
    Your funeral example seems backwards to me: since very little fun is usually had at funerals, it’s very hard to understate how much fun is had, or very hard overstate how little fun is had. If you understate how little fun is had, you’re back to overstating how much fun is had. Aren’t implicit double (triple? Quadruple?) negatives fun? Dec 26, 2018 at 21:35
  • Yup. I have been thinking the same thing. Likewise Neil Diamond. Answer edited. Thanks. Dec 26, 2018 at 22:47
  • "...fun there is to be had at a funeral." At my father-in-law's funeral, a woman, who turned out be a distant relative of his from Ireland, attached herself to us. She was a breezy, cheerful, irreverent woman of 60 or so. She confided that she "came to these things for the wakes". In case the wake might turn out to be inadequate, she had a hip-flask of good Irish whiskey, which she shared with my wife and me. She kept up a stream of amusing patter (in whispers during the church service, aloud the rest of the time). She was exactly what we needed. My wife burst out laughing several times. Jun 9, 2019 at 20:15
  • @JanusBahsJacquet That is the whole point. We 'overstate' something that is very large, numerous or significant. The clue is the prefix 'over' in its sense of excessive(ly). So It is hard to overstate the enthusiasm of Americans for the Superbowl" To overstate is to exaggerate. To understate means the opposite. So we might say "it is hard to understate the enthusiasm of Americans for test cricket.
    – Tuffy
    Jan 14, 2022 at 0:55
  • @Tuffy Exactly, which is why the original wording (now changed) was backwards, since it had the extra element of littleness. Understating how little enthusiasm Americans show for test cricket means you understate (= make less of) the littleness of the enthusiasm, which means you make the enthusiasm seem bigger than it is = overstating it. As the answer is currently phrased, it is accurate and easily understood. Jan 14, 2022 at 1:03

Here's my take...

"It's hard to" is a negative, like "can't".

If you "can't overstate", that means you can only understate; Whatever you say, will not be enough to describe a thing's importance. The thing is extremely important.

If you "can't understate", that means you can only overstate; Whatever you say is too much. The thing is worthless.

In my opinion, these are cliche expressions that unnecessarily obfuscate the writer's message, and should be avoided. Their importance is hard to understate.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.