Understatements decrease the importance of an event, idea, etc., for a variety of different reasons. When used, it can make the subject feel weaker or even less interesting and appealing. There are many reasons a writer might use this literary device. It can create humor, soothe a listener’s worries, create a different atmosphere, and more.
Definition of Understatement
An understatement is an intentional lessening of something’s importance. Someone might use an understatement ironically in order to draw attention to how important or strong something truly is.
For example, a parent arriving home to see how their children have destroyed the kitchen and saying, ‘Oh, that’s not too bad.” This creates humor while at the same time suggesting that it’s been much worse in the past. There is a lot one can read into a statement like this. What were the speaker’s expectations? Are they sarcastic or serious? Usually, it’s the former. In a situation where something is awful, serious, or important, an understatement is usually used sarcastically. But, in some situations, someone might use it in an effort to lessen the blow of a situation.
For example, calling that same parent and telling them not to worry as everything is “under control” at home. This intentional understatement is used in order to keep the parent calm and out of the loop for as long as possible. Understatement is the opposite of overstatement and hyperbole.
Examples of Understatements in Literature
Salinger’s novel contains a few good examples of understatements. One of the most obvious occurs near the beginning of the novel while Holden is` riding the train with Mrs. Morrow. Holden tells her the following after she inquires about why he’s going home:
“No, everybody’s fine at home,” I said. “It’s me. I have to have this operation.”
“It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
“Oh, I’ll be all right and everything! It’s right near the outside. And it’s a very tiny one. They can take it out in about two minutes.”
In this passage, Holden crafts a lie about why he’s going home, suggesting that he has a brain tumor that has to be removed. Then, after feeling bad about the lie, he uses an understatement to make the imagined brain tumor seem less serious than it would be in reality. This is an example of how this literary device can be used to make a serious situation less serious in order to make someone feel better.
To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell
In ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell, the poet uses an interesting example of an understatement in the following lines:
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
He’s speaking to his lover, telling her that she needs to seize the day and do everything she can to live her life. That is followed up by a reminder that one day she’s going to die, and there won’t be anyone there “embrac[ing].” He also uses an understatement to describe the grave as a “fine and private place.” This is an understatement used to keep the mood of the statement light. He could’ve described it as “dark and lonely” or “cold and fearful” and changed the feeling entirely.
Read more Andrew Marvell poems.
Why Do Writers Use Understatements?
Writers use understatements when they want to create humor, irony, or convey an aspect of someone’s personality. Someone who continually uses understatements might be perceived as pessimistic, while someone who uses overstatements might seem optimistic or naive. It’s easy to see the wide variety of ways in which one might use understatements ironically and in order to create humor. For instance, saying that a meeting “could’ve been worse” after everything possible went wrong or saying that a family is “getting along well” after they spent the whole evening fighting.
Understatement, Overstatement, and Hyperbole
As the prefixes suggest, the first two literary terms are the exact opposite of one another. An overstatement is the exaggeration of a situation. For example, a teenager screaming at her parents that they’ve “ruined her life” or a sign reading “It’s the end of the world.” Hyperboles are intentional exaggerations that are used to create humor. They’re clearly exaggerations and are considered a type of figurative language. For example, saying one’s upstairs neighbors are so noisy that it sounds like they’re riding elephants or using their new bowling alley.
Understatements are used to make a situation seem less serious or interesting than it might be in reality. Consider how overstatements and understatements change the following situation. If someone wants to use an understatement to describe a potential romantic partner, they might say: “They aren’t perfect, and their job doesn’t pay a lot.” If someone were to describe the same person with overstatements, they might say: “They’re literally perfect, and their job pays more than they could ever spend.” The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.
An understatement is an intentional lessening of something’s importance. It makes something seem less serious.
An example is in The Great Gatsby when Tom describes his extremely expensive home as “a nice place.”
One example is: “To say that I had fun today would be an understatement.”
‘Minimization,’ ‘underplaying,’ and ‘reserve’ are other words one might use instead of an understatement.
Getting into a fistfight with someone and saying that it was just a little disagreement.
Related Literary Terms
- Litotes: a figure of speech that includes a phrase in which a negative word is used in order to express something positive.
- Meiosis: a figure of speech that, when used, minimizes the importance of something. This is done through the use of a euphemism.
- Euphemism: an indirect expression used to replace that something that is deemed inappropriate or crude.
- Black Humor: a literary device that’s used in all forms of literature in order to discuss taboo subjects in a less distressing way.
- Paraphrasing: to simplify it down to its most basic elements, clarifying along the way and choosing a less complicated language.
- Subjective: refers to a particular point of view. It is based on someone’s personal opinions and beliefs.