An exaggeration is a statement that pushes the limits of a situation, feeling, idea, or experience. It is used to make something appear worse or better than it actually is in reality.

E.g. In the sentence, "The book was as heavy as a ton of bricks," the description of the book's weight is an exaggeration

It stresses particular elements of one’s story and ensures that the reader focuses on what’s truly important. A writer might use exaggeration in their storytelling, or they might write a character whose apt to use it themselves. It could be an important part of someone’s personality. There are a couple of different types of exaggeration. They include hyperbole and overstatement. 

Exaggeration definition and examples

Definition of Exaggeration 

An exaggeration is a statement that makes a situation, idea, person, object, or experience seem better or worse than it is. Someone might use exaggeration to make their accomplishments seem more extreme or to make their loss/failure seem less significant. There are positive and negative exaggerations, especially when it comes to accomplishments and other people. It’s easy to exaggerate another’s actions, how someone spoke, or what their intentions were. For example, someone might say that their partner “went totally insane” during a fight when in reality, they were understandably upset about something that occurred in the relationship. This is a good example of how one might use exaggerations when they’re trying to turn readers’ or listeners’ opinions in their favor. 

Examples in Literature 

Song by John Donne 

In this well-loved John Donne poem, the speaker uses several different exaggerations in order to convey a particular feeling. He asks the listener to undertake tasks that are completely impossible, creating a magical and wistful atmosphere. It’s an unusual work among John Donne’s oeuvre in that it doesn’t use the powerful conceits that appear in other poems. Here are the first few lines of this song-like poem: 

Go and catch a falling star,

Get with child a mandrake root,

Tell me where all past years are,

Or who cleft the devil’s foot,

Teach me to hear mermaids singing,

Or to keep off envy’s stinging,

Here, he asks the listener to “catch a falling star” and find a “mandrake root,” a mythical plant. He also mentions “mermaids singing” and uncovering who “cleft the devil’s foot.” These impossibilities continue into the following lines when he starts speaking about a “woman” and how it’ll take a ten thousand-day journey to find a faithful woman. 

Explore John Donne’s poetry. 

The People Upstairs by Ogden Nash 

Nash’s light-hearted poem ‘The People Upstairs’ is one of his best-known. 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: 

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 exaggerations, Nash’s speaker is relaying a very relatable situation. 

Read more Ogden Nash poems.

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell 

In this famous Andrew Marvell poem, the poet uses a conceit in which a relationship is developed between two unlike things. It details the efforts of a man attempting to woo his mistress. She refuses to sleep with him, and in order to convince her, he uses exaggerations. He tells her that he could spend centuries admiring his beauty and innocence. But he does know that human life is short and that he doesn’t have enough time to do that. Therefore, they should just enjoy the time they have with one another. Here are a few lines: 

Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, Lady, were no crime

We would sit down and think which way

To walk and pass our long love’s day.

Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side

Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide

Of Humber would complain. I would

Love you ten years before the Flood,

This clever use of exaggeration is a great example of how the technique might benefit a speaker or writer in a particular situation. It might get someone what they want when it’s used thoughtfully. 

Discover Andrew Marvell’s poetry.

Why Do Writers Use Exaggeration? 

Writers use exaggeration for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s used to place emphasis on an idea, action, feeling, idea, or another element through overstatement. The writer is able to draw the reader’s attention to a particular portion of their text that they feel is important through this technique as well. Depending on the context, exaggeration might be used humorously or seriously. ‘The People Upstairs’ is a great example of a former. Nash uses exaggeration as a way to entertain the reader and create new and interesting imagery. Writers have to be careful about the amount of exaggeration they use, as too much might push the reader’s patience and willingness to continue reading. 

  • 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 the use of 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.”

Other Resources 

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