An understatement is a figure of speech employed by writers or speakers to intentionally make a situation seem less important than it really is.
For example, you win 10 million dollars in a lottery. When you tell a news reporter “I am delighted,” you are making an understatement. Similarly, suppose a team loses to its opponent 50 to 0 in a soccer match, and the captain of the team says in a post-match ceremony, “We did not do well,” it is an understatement because he is trying to decrease the intensity of the loss.
An understatement usually has an ironic effect, as an equally intense response is expected in severe situations, but the statement in response is the opposite of what was expected. For instance, your friend returns your new coat with a large wine stain on the front of it. In response, you make an understatement, “It doesn’t look too bad.” Therefore, an understatement is opposite to another figure of speech, hyperbole, which is an overstatement.
Common Understatement Examples
Let us try to understand understatement better with the help of some common examples of understatement used in daily conversations:
- “Deserts are sometimes hot, dry, and sandy.” – Describing deserts of the world.
- “He is not too thin.” – Describing an obese person.
- “It rained a bit more than usual.” – Describing an area being flooded by heavy rainfall.
- “It was O.K.” – Said by the student who got the highest score on the test.
- “It is a bit nippy today.” – Describing the temperature, which is 5 degrees below freezing.
Difference between Ironic and Non-Ironic Understatement
An ironic understatement is a statement whose very objective is a mockery. It is also called comedic understatement and comprises verbal irony. In other words, the literal meaning is not what the speaker speaks but what he intends. In non-ironic understatement, the literal meanings are a fact that is being presented without any pretensions.
Differences between Understatement and Hyperbole
Although both hyperbole and understatement appear the same, they have a little difference. Hyperbole is an exaggeration that is always greater than the actual while an understatement is always lesser than the actual. Therefore, despite having a similarity in their functions, both are different from each other where one belittles and the other makes bigger.
Difference between Understatement and Anticlimax
There is a lot of difference between an understatement and an anti-climax. Whereas an understatement means to belittle things with irony or without irony, an anti-climax means to bring down expectations after heightening them to a point that unexpected bringing down causes disappointment.
Difference between Understatement and Litotes
As mentioned above, an understatement means belittling things, a litotes means using double negative to express affirmation. For example, he states that it has rained a bit today is an understatement while if he says it has not rained cats and dogs is a litotes.
Using Understatement in Sentences
- She gained a little weight. It’s not a big deal jumping from Size 8 to 16.
- They are doing a bit of their construction these days and of course, there’ll be a lot of noise.
- Joe’s hair fall has led to his downfall.
- It is not that I’m not waking up in the mornings, it is that my mom is not making me sit down.
- 2020 was not the best of the times and also not the worst of the times.
Examples of Understatement in Literature
Example #1: Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
In Salinger’s 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.”
Having a tumor in the brain is a serious issue, which has been understated in this excerpt.
Example #2: Emperor Mage by Tamora Pierce
“I thought they’d killed you. I lost my temper.”
This is an understatement that Daine makes, after raising an army of dinosaur skeletons to destroy the king, and later, she destroys the imperial palace in order to avenge the death of her teacher.
Example #3: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
[Aunt Sally] “Good gracious, anybody hurt?”
[Huck] “No’m. Killed a nigger.”
This excerpt from Mark Twain’s famous work provides one of the great understatement examples found in Twain’s literary pieces. Huck’s response, “No’m. Killed a nigger” exposes the thinking of the people of the time, who did not consider black men humans. Killing a black man was not considered something serious.
Example #4: Night’s Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton
Look at the understatement in Night’s Dawn Trilogy written by Peter F. Hamilton:
“I’ve always been a massive admirer of the Edenist ability to understate. But I think defining a chunk of land fifteen kilometers across that suddenly takes flight and wanders off into another dimension as a little problem is possibly the best example yet.”
Example #5: The Silver Chain by Primula Bond
Another example of understatement comes from Primula Bond’s novel The Silver Chain:
“And you, who have told me a hundred times how deeply you pitied me for the sorceries by which I was bound, will doubtless hear with joy that they are now ended forever. There was, it seems, some small error in your Ladyship’s way of treating them.”
The reference of “some small error” is an understatement as the error which ends somebody’s power is not small at all.
Example #6: Consider Phlebas by Iain Banks
In another fantasy novel, Consider Phlebas, an understatement was made about a war that lasted for 48 years, and took the lives of more than 851 billion beings.
“A small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy and .01% by stellar population … the galaxy’s elder civilisations rate the Idiran-Culture war as … one of those singularly interesting Events they see so rarely these days.”
Function of Understatement
An understatement is a tool that helps to develop other figures of speech, such as irony and sarcasm, by deliberately decreasing the severity of a situation, when an intense response is expected by the listeners or the readers.
Synonyms of Understatement
As a literary term, no other word can be used as its substitute. However, a few following words are its distant synonyms such as euphemism, understatement, minimization, trivialization, or sometimes subtlety, litotes, and meiosis.