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Understatement: Definition and Examples

Updated on November 27, 2023Students

An understatement is a figure of speech in which the writer intentionally downplays or minimizes the significance or intensity of a situation, often to be rhetorical or satirical or to (counterintuitively) create emphasis. Here, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty details of what understatements are (and aren’t) so you know how to spot them—and how to use them.

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What is an understatement?

An understatement is a literary device used to downplay a situation as less serious, less significant, or smaller than it really is. Understatements are typically used to emphasize the very quality they downplay. When used ironically, understatements are powerful tools for humor and depth. When used unironically, understatements can be used to downplay expressions that would otherwise come off as inappropriate or immodest, such as saying “I did alright” after winning an Olympic gold medal.

When to use understatements

Reasons to use understatements might include: being humorous, emphasizing the subject at hand, or being polite.

We often use understatements to draw attention to things. We want to come across as funny by jokingly portraying things as much less than they are, or show that we’re polite by downplaying our own successes or feelings.

In writing, understatements can be used intentionally to emphasize something in an essay, poem, song, story, or script. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare describes Mercutio’s stab wound as “ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch.” In this case, Shakespeare uses understatement to highlight how serious the situation has become and to break the tension through comedic relief.

Understatements rely on a common understanding of their figurative meaning, so using them in writing can show your familiarity with the language and add to your credibility as a writer. They can also make your writing more conversational.

3 understatement literary devices

1 Irony

Irony, “the expression of one’’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect,” is a type of understatement. You use understatement to imply “less” than what you mean, and irony when saying the opposite of what you mean.

As the hurricane approached, they noted that it was “a little breezy today.”

2 Litotes

Litotes are intentional understatements that are used to soften an expression by using a negative to convey a positive. Litotes use a negative such as not or no in order to create the same effect as an understatement. All litotes are understatements, but not all understatements are litotes.

“Not a bad idea,” she said, after hearing the perfect solution to their problem.

3 Meiosis

A meiosis is a type of understatement often used to undermine or belittle a person, situation, object, or movement; to avoid naming the subject at hand; and for humorous effect. A meiosis specifically works as a euphemism.

He was on the team but mostly served as a benchwarmer.

Understatements should not be confused with “false statements,” which are purposely incorrect in order to mislead. Understatements should be obvious. When you understate something, you do so without the intention of lying. For example, if you were to crash your car:

  • Understatement: Nothing a little TLC can’t fix.
  • False statement: The car is still drivable.

Rather than being obviously humorous, false statements take an objective stance and come across as deceptive.

Understatement synonyms

  • Downplay
  • Euphemism
  • Minimization
  • Reserved
  • Restrained
  • Trivialization
  • Subtlety
  • Underemphasize
  • Underplay

Understatement vs. euphemism

Like understatements, euphemisms are not to be interpreted literally. Euphemisms are used to sidestep a heavy topic or uncomfortable situation, using more pleasant imagery and language to soften the conversation at hand.

Euphemisms are employed specifically around topics like politics, sex, money, and death. Instead of saying your pet died, you might say they “crossed over the rainbow bridge.” If you were using an understatement, you might say, “My pet is no longer with me.”

Both take the weight off the topic but are different. Euphemisms are used to substitute a harsher phrase with something more mild and indirect when a topic is uncomfortable. Euphemisms make language more socially acceptable and less provocative.

Understatement vs. overstatement

Whether overstating or understating something, they’re both employed for dramatic effect. Both understatements and their antonym, overstatements, are used figuratively.

Where understatements aim to make things appear smaller than they are, overstatements, also called hyperbole, make things appear much bigger, more dramatic, and more serious than they are.

Understatements downplay while overstatements exaggerate.

When using understatement to describe a flood, you might turn to humor and say, “It rained a bit last night.” If you’re using hyperbole, you’d say, “It’s an ocean out there.”

Understatement examples

  • There’s been a slight problem. (When the problem is disastrous.)
  • I’m feeling a bit under the weather. (When you have the bubonic plague.)
  • The cookie was pretty good. (When it was the best thing you’ve ever eaten.)
  • Welcome to my humble abode. (When welcoming people into your mansion.)
  • I may have made a minor mistake. (When you’re calling from jail.)

Understatement FAQs

What is an understatement?

An understatement is a figure of speech in which a situation or event is intentionally downplayed or represented as less significant, less impressive, or less serious than it actually is.

Why use an understatement?

Understatements are often used for rhetorical effect, humor, emphasis, or to create a sense of irony. They depend on the audience’s ability to recognize that the meaning is not literal.

How does understatement work in writing?

An understatement is a powerful device that can help communicate complex ideas or provoke thought and emotion by deliberately minimizing certain elements. Understatements can be used to engage readers, create a tone, embed comedic effects, or draw attention to something.

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