Writers use an overstatement when they want to create a specific mood, imbue a story with humor, and more. Usually, the literary device is used on purpose, but it’s possible that one might use it accidentally. For instance, overstating what happened in one’s personal life or changing events to suit one’s needs. Depending on the situation, one’s use of overstatement may or may not be meant to be taken seriously.
Definition of Overstatement
An overstatement is a literary device that writers use when they want to make a situation seem more dramatic, outrageous, or in some way different than it actually is. This is sometimes done for comedic effect, while in other instances, it can be used more seriously. This device appears in every form and genre of literature. It can be found in novels, short stories, and poems, and more.
It should also be noted that the device is sometimes used on purpose, but there are instances in which writers might use the device on accident. For instance, overstating a premise in an academic paper.
Examples of Overstatements in Literature
‘The People Upstairs’ is one of Nash’s most amusing poems. In it, he uses outrageous descriptions to try to define how noisy his upstairs neighbors are. He makes guesses about what’s going on upstairs that range from them jumping on pogo sticks, making use of a bowling alley, and practicing ballet. Here are a few lines of the poem in which he uses overstatement:
The people upstairs all practise ballet.
Their living room is a bowling alley
Their bedroom is full of conducted tours.
Their radio is louder than yours,
They celebrate week-ends all the week.
In these lines, Nash’s speaker exaggerates how loud the noise coming from the upstairs apartment is. This is done in order to make the reader, who is meant to be a young child, laugh. Despite the fact that these are overstatements, Nash’s speaker is relaying a very relatable situation which helps with the realism.
Read more Ogden Nash poems.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
In the following lines from Act II Scene 2 of Macbeth, Macbeth speaks about how guilty he feels in regard to Duncan’s murder. He says:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
He suggests that all the water couldn’t wash his hands clean, a clear example of an overstatement. He only says this so readers can understand how emotional he is and how wide and unending his guilt feels.
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
‘Television’ speaks on themes of childhood and entertainment. The poem describes in outrageous detail the dangers of television and what a parent can do to save their child. Dahl’s speaker uses overstatements to reflect on the dangers of watching too much TV. They range from a child’s brain melting to the child’s loss of desire to understand the world. For example:
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
It’s clear that the poet doesn’t really think that children’s brains become “as soft as cheese,” but the statement makes his main idea clearer. It also makes the poem much funnier and more interesting. Compare this to another version where, hypothetically, Dahl chose not to use overstatement and instead said, “His brain isn’t quite as interested in academics.” This more realistic statement is far less interesting to read.
Read more Roald Dahl poems.
‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,’ also sometimes known as ‘Daffodils,’ is often held up as one of the crowning achievements of the Romantic movement. It is also a wonderful source of various literary devices. In the poem, readers can find examples of personification, imagery, movement, and even overstatement. The overstatement in the following lines is not meant to be taken seriously, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t effective.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
In the second stanza of the poem, Wordsworth’s speaker says that the daffodils stretched “in never-ending line,” a clear overstatement. But, when taken with the rest of the poem, it makes a great deal of sense.
Explore William Wordsworth’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Overstatement?
Writers can use overstatements for a wide variety of reasons. One writer might use the literary device in order to create a comedic scene in their poem, story, or novel. For example, over-exaggerating the danger or absurdity of a situation. In another situation, a writer could use overstatement in order to set the scene for an upcoming drama. It might not turn out as dangerous or exciting as it’s initially described, but the overstatement puts the reader in the right mood.
Related Literary Terms
- Archaism: a figure of speech in which a writer’s choice of word or phrase is purposefully old-fashioned.
- Attitude: refers to the tone a writer takes on whatever they are writing.
- Colloquial Diction: conversational in nature and can be seen through informal words that represent a specific place or time.
- Euphemism: an indirect expression used to replace that something that is deemed inappropriate or crude.
- Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
- Metaphor: used to describe an object, person, situation, or action in a way that helps a reader understand it without using “like” or “as”.