Today’s lesson is on another common form of figurative language, the hyperbole, and a literary device that is its polar opposite, understatement. The use of either one can add humor, impact, and variety to a literary work. Authors who master the use of both develop powerful tools to add interest to their work.
So what exactly are they?
To put it plainly, a hyperbole is an extreme exaggeration used to make or emphasize a point. In fact, they can, and often are, so exaggerated as to end up becoming humorous or bordering on the absurd.
Individuals claiming to have repeated a task or phrase an impossible number of times and schoolyard “your mama” jokes are common, everyday examples just about everyone is familiar with in our culture thanks to popular media if nothing else.
Understatement is not usually considered figurative language since what is stated is often true. It is just underplayed for effect instead of being “stretched” beyond the literal truth. So, in technical terms, understatement is a literary device rather than a type of figurative language.
Partially thanks to the way media vies for our attention and the rise of social media making it an ever more present aspect of our lives, understatement is not as common as hyperbole today. So I will give a few more detailed examples than I did for hyperbole above.
Imagine a local interest story on the afternoon news. A resident was burning leaves when an unexpected breeze caused it to spread into their neighbor’s lawn, catch their tree on fire, which then spread to the house. When asked what happened, the resident burning the leaves states, “The fire got away from us a bit.”
Now imagine you hired a babysitter to watch a toddler, and they decided to take a nap while the toddler napped in the afternoon. Only, the kid woke up, found all of your art supplies, and proceeded to cover every wall they could reach in pencil, crayon, marker, and paint doodles and scribbles. Then when you get home, the babysitter just says, “She sure likes to draw.”
Those are examples of understatement. Both are true, but taken at face value, they would make you think whatever it is was much less serious.
How are hyperbole and understatement used?
Although either device can be used on its own, hyperbole and understatement can also be used to compliment other types of figurative language or to set up a specific tone. Hyperbole fits well with similes and metaphors. Understatement can be its own form of sarcasm and irony or used to emphasize them.
Both are often also used within dialogue as a means of establishing character voice, demeanor, and sense of humor. More jovial, often extroverted characters, are shown using hyperbole with great emotion. Some deliver hyperbolic statements with a dry expression, and still others employ understatement to convey a dry wit or a serious demeanor.
Unfortunately, there is a tendency among newer writers to make a misstep when employing hyperbole. This would be the misuse of the word “literally” by including it in a hyperbole, which by its very nature is not literal at all. It is often included with the intention of adding further emphasis, but this can backfire by detracting from the purposeful exaggeration through its incongruity.
However, that is not to say this can never be done without great effect. In fact, it can be a powerful characterization tool when employed within a character’s dialogue. It can show a general lack of understanding if a character uses it seriously. It can illustrate confusion on a few of English’s finer points with a character for whom English is not their native language. Or it can be used in an ironic or sarcastic way to show frustration or their sense of humor.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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