An understatement is when you represent something as less than what it is. This can be done in writing or in speech. When you make an understatement, the issue at hand is minimalized or made to seem less important or severe. This can be done for an ironic effect or simply to be polite. An understatement is an important figure of speech.
Examples of Understatement
Different Types of Understatement
Understatements can be used for different purposes and outcomes. Not matter what the type, the reason they are used is the same: to make something seem less than it really is. There are several different types of understatements, such as:
- Comedic: This type of understatement adds humor to an otherwise serious situation. For example, there is a hurricane at your vacation home and there is most likely severe damage to the house. You say, "At least the plants will get watered."
- Modest: This type of understatement is used instead of bragging or boasting about something. For example, winning your first trophy and saying it was "not a big deal" when it really was a big deal.
- Polite: This type of understatement can be used in difficult situations when you may disagree with someone's opinion but still want to remain polite. For example, when talking politics and you and a friend are on completely opposite sides, but you simply say, "I think our opinions are slightly different on this matter." Or, if someone asks you to describe someone who is very short, you say, "Well, he's not tall."
There are many examples of understatements used in everyday speech and writing. Some examples include:
- You just hit the biggest lottery of all time! An understatement would be: "I'm kind of excited." (Modest)
- You are out to dinner with a friend who spills food down the front of her white shirt. An understatement would be: "Really, it's hardly noticeable." (Polite)
- You get the highest grade in class. An understatement would be: "I did OK on that test." (Modest)
- You scrape the entire side of your car. An understatement would be: "It is only a small scratch." (Comedic)
- Describing a huge storm overnight, an understatement would be: "Looks like it rained a bit last night." (Comedic)
- You just had to work a double shift. An understatement would be: "I just need to rest my eyes for a minute." (Comedic)
- Your team wins the biggest game of the season. An understatement would be: "Yeah, we played pretty well today." (Modest)
- On the coldest day of the year with record low temperatures an understatement would be: "I might need a jacket today." (Comedic)
- Your friend invites you over to see their new fixer-upper. You are shocked at the poor condition of the house. An understatement would be: “Oh, it will need some fresh paint” (Polite)
- A person flips out in anger over a hockey game on television and breaks their TV. An understatement would be: "I have a little bit of a temper." (Comedic)
- You land your dream job after endless interviews and get offered a generous salary with lots of benefits. An understatement would be: "I am pretty happy with my new job offer." (Modest)
- Referring to Oprah Winfrey, an understatement would be: "She has some money." (Comedic)
Understatement in Literature
Understatements are also found in poetry and literature. An understatement plays with the readers expectations—downplaying a situation when the reader might imagine a more intense response. Some examples include:
- In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says, “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
- In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet when Mercutio is stabbed by Tybalt. Mercutio says, "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough. Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon."
- Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" short poem ironically downplays the end of the world through the use of understatement:
"Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice."
Understatement in Songs
You can often find the use of understatements in songs. Artists use understatements to make light of a situation or for rhetorical or ironic effect. Some examples of understatements used in songs include:
- "It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine." - REM, "It's the End of the World as We Know It"
- "I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell." - Matchbox Twenty, "I'm Not Crazy"
- "Through it all, just one thing died, A little thing called love, something deep inside." - Frank Sinatra, "You and Me (We Wanted It All)"
- "I ain't blue, baby, Just a little bit lonesome for some lovin', Everything is fine, Just don't want to be all by myself." - Bonnie Raitt, "I Ain't Blue"
- "I guess that I'm not feelin' so hot, Must've woke up on the wrong side of my rat-infested cot, How profoundly I regret this entire tete-a-tete, It's just sometimes I get a little upset." - James Snyder, "A Little Upset"
Identifying and Using Understatement
As you can see, anything that is made less important than it really is can be identified as an understatement. Exaggerations or hyperbole and overstatements are the complete opposite, where something is blown out of proportion. Understatements are sometimes not well defined and are subtly said to another person out of rhetoric. Often times, the response to one is "Well, that is an understatement!"
An understatements is a common figure of speech. It can be used in literature, poetry, song and daily speech. Making an understatement minimizes the severity of a situation, draws in the reader and can be used to make others feel better. An understatements can also add a touch of humor to something quite serious.