Errant Cliche-watch: Cannot Be Understated

A pet peeve: People who write or say “cannot be understated” when they mean “cannot be overstated”. Yes, there are times when such folks actually mean to say what they say, but much more common is when someone says “understated” in this cliched context when they mean “overstated”. The upshot, of course, is that they are saying that something is really, really trivial, when they mean to say precisely the opposite.

Here is an example from a BusinessWeek article assessing Bill Gates’ legacy. I have a hunch that the author did not mean to imply that Microsoft’s and Gates’ impact were minimal:

For better or worse, the role that Microsoft and Bill Gates played in such a vast societal change cannot be understated.

For more of this sort of thing just do a quick Google search. It’s legion. I’m particularly fond of one of the first hits in the search, one where someone says, “The dangers of meth cannot be understated.” Whoa, news to me!


  1. A Saturday Night Live skit in the mid-80s featured Ed Asner as a retiring nuclear reactor manager who offers a last bit of advice to the staff: “Remember, you can’t add too much water to a nuclear reactor.” As he sips drinks on the beach, the reactor explodes because the staff can’t figure out if he meant “you *shouldn’t* add too much water” or “more water is always OK”.
    The problem arises because “can/can’t” means either “possible/impossible” or “should/shouldn’t” — or even something in between, like “easy/hard”.
    I think the same problem is in play for your peeve. You could charitably read “cannot be understated” as “should not be understated”, which is often what the author means.
    Your preferred alternative, “cannot be overstated”, is more the usual sense in my experience — but it also has problems. It’s not literally true as “it is impossible to overstate this”, because with effort you can overstate anything. And to people unfamiliar with the idiom — which from your examples include professional journalists — it’s prone to misinterpretation as “should not be overstated”, which suggests deemphasis of importance rather than the intended emphasis.
    So both wordings are hyperbolic and ambiguous, a dangerous combination for clarity. I recommend neither.
    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you can’t read these things too carefully.

  2. Nicely put, Gordon. Thanks.

  3. Whatever. I could care less.

  4. What about Moot Court? If an point is Moot it means there’s no need to speak about it?

  5. Heh, Stewart Butterfield stole mine. I’ll add another though: “…he rattles on incessantly, each word more useless than the next.”

  6. Eschew obfuscation, I say!