What is the Difference Between Hyperbole and Understatement?


Hyperbole and Understatement
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Hyperbole and Understatement


The understatement and the hyperbole are opposite literary techniques. Let’s start with the hyperbole, which is an obvious exaggeration. I have written up here on the board an example of a hyperbole. “He jumped 10 feet in the air when he heard the good news.” No human being actually has the ability to jump 10 feet in the air. The writer is conveying to the reader the strong emotion that this person is feeling at this time.


This sentence wouldn’t have near the effect: “He jumped when he heard the good news.” The reader is going to read this sentence and think, “Okay, this person is excited.” Up here, the reader really gets an idea of how excited the person is at that point. Sometimes, hyperboles are kind of vague and they don’t have nearly the same effect. Say, instead of ten, I said “two feet”. “He jumped two feet in the air when he heard the good news.” Two feet would be a pretty good way to jump, but it’s still not out of the question.


The reader is going to look at this sentence unsure of whether the writer is trying to make a hyperbole or not. Writers should shy away from these types of vague hyperboles, as they’re trying to keep credibility with the reader. The reader will think, “This person is exaggerating and doesn’t even know it. How can I trust them not to exaggerate on other points of their story?” The great thing about hyperbole is when they say things like this: He jumped 10 feet in the air. The reader knows that the writer is exaggerating on purpose.


They can still trust the writer, because the writer is always going to make it obvious when they’re exaggerating. When trying to keep credibility with the reader, the writer should not make vague hyperboles. If the writer is not concerned about their credibility, then they can feel free to make vague hyperboles like this where the reader is left guessing as to whether this is an exaggeration or not. I said the hyperbole is the opposite of an understatement.


An understatement is exactly what it sounds like: It’s describing something as less than it actually is. If someone hiked Mt. Everest and then described it as a little stroll, this would be an example of an understatement. Many times, and understatement is meant to convey modesty, like in the above example. The hiker is not trying to make what they did seem like a big deal. Sometimes, this has the opposite effect and the reader feels like the writer is conveying false modesty.


If someone pointed out a woman’s huge engagement ring, and she said, “Oh, this little thing?” this would come off as snobby or insensitive, because the person is obviously trying to draw attention to themselves by saying that it’s very small. Then people would respond, “No, no, it’s very large,” and this makes the person feel good.


Understatements can have various effects, but an understatement is always going to call attention to itself. People aren’t going to get by with an understatement. The reader is always going to notice that and try to figure out what kind of emotions the writer is trying to evoke from that understatement.



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Last updated: 07/11/2018

 

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