Hyperbole and Understatement
Hyperbole is overstatement for effect. The following sentence is an example of hyperbole: “He jumped ten feet in the air when he heard the good news.” Obviously, no person has the ability to jump ten feet in the air. The author hyperbolizes not because he believes the statement will be taken literally, but because the exaggeration conveys the extremity of emotion. Consider how much less colorful the sentence would be if the author simply said, “He jumped when he heard the good news.” Hyperbole can be dangerous if the author does not exaggerate enough. For instance, if the author wrote, “He jumped two feet in the air when he heard the good news,” the reader might not be sure whether this is actually true or just hyperbole. Of course, in many situations this distinction will not really matter. However, an author should avoid confusing or vague hyperbole when he needs to maintain credibility or authority with readers. Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole; it is describing something as less than it is, for effect. As an example, consider a person who climbs Mount Everest and then describes the journey as “a little stroll.” This is an almost extreme example of understatement. Like other types of figurative language, understatement has a range of uses. It may convey self-deprecation or modesty, as in the above example. Of course, some people might interpret understatement as false modesty, a deliberate attempt to call attention to the magnitude of what is being discussed. For example, a woman is complimented on her enormous diamond engagement ring and says, “Oh, this little thing?” Her understatement might be viewed as snobby or insensitive. Understatement can have various effects, but it always calls attention to itself.
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Last updated: 12/18/2017
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