Underestimate or overestimate?
You may need tea or something stronger for this.
Heard on BBC Radio 4 during a conversation about a doctor wrongly accused of misconduct:
You cannot underestimate the effects of a case like this on an individual.
Underestimate? Is that right? Shouldn’t the speaker have said ‘overestimate’?
Overestimate means ‘to form too high an estimate of’ (see Oxford Dictionaries).
Underestimate means to estimate that something is smaller or less important than it actually is (see Oxford Dictionaries).
So what did the speaker on Radio 4 mean to say?
Here’s how I see it:
If I cannot underestimate the effect on the doctor, then I could say that the effect was miniscule — but it could be even smaller than that.
If I cannot overestimate the effect, then however great I estimate the effect to be, it could be even greater.
So, the Radio 4 speaker should have said:
You cannot overerestimate the effects of a case like this on an individual.
See an excellent discussion about this in theGuardian newspaper.