I was interested in the following sentence which appeared in an article titled “In Rossellini’s War Movies, the Naturalism Survives" by Dave Kehr in The New York Times (January 22, 2010).

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.

Can someone clarify if the fragment "almost impossible to underestimate" makes the sentence illogical?

I would reword "underestimate" with "overestimate", but I'm not quite sure on this correction because I'm not able to precisely identify the meaning of "underestimate" in this context, and the word "almost" that precede "impossible" makes the problem entirely incomprehensible (to me).

(Apologize in advanced if the question is not good for this site or if it is a dupe of another question. If so, please delete rather than close. Thank you.)

  • 2
    You are right, it looks like an error to me. I at first thought it was ironic understatement. – JeffSahol Jun 8 '12 at 16:16
  • First sentence of a news report (apocryphal); "It is almost impossible to overestimate the gravity of the situation here, but I'll try." – Tim Lymington Jun 8 '12 at 16:25
  • 1
    @Shoe Why have you removed your answer? There was an interesting link. If you undelete, I vote +1. – Elberich Schneider Jun 8 '12 at 16:27
  • I agree. I'd've voted for it too if I were allowed. That's why I reposted the link, with some others. – John Lawler Jun 8 '12 at 17:04
  • I intended to make it a comment but mistakenly posted it as an answer. I assumed that deleting it would remove it entirely, which is obviously not the case- Maybe a moderator can sort out the little mess I have caused! – Shoe Jun 8 '12 at 17:14

This is an interesting phrase because, depending on how you read it, it could mean exactly the same as its opposite.

It's almost impossible to underestimate the importance of these movies

= these movies are so important that to underestimate them is, quite simply, impossible.

It's almost impossible to overestimate the importance of these movies

= these movies are so important that no amount of overestimation is too much.

"Such and such can't be overstated" is similarly ambiguous. In the same way, it could mean the same thing as "Such and such can't be understated."


You are right that the fragment is illogical. There is a full discussion of this at Language Log: Misunderestimation


The Language Log post that Shoe pointed out also refers to an earlier post on Overnegation, as the topic is called.

For those interested, here's a fascinating handout, with examples, from a recent paper on the subject by Larry Horn, who is the expert on English negation. As it turns out, logic is a weak reed to lean on with potent operators like negation.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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