What Is Understatement?

Understatement is when a speaker minimizes either what he feels or what is happening around him. For example, if a car passes your house, and the speakers are so loud that dishes in the pantry trembles, and the dog starts howling, your brother might say, “Well, that’s barely audible.”

As that example implies, understatement is often used for comic effect, as a kind of reverse hyperbole. Understatement is also used by modest or unassuming people who wish to avoid calling attention to themselves, like the person who says, “It wasn’t that big a deal” after winning the state-wide championship for their school’s soccer team. Most people have engaged in that form of understatement. Saying “no problem” when, in fact, you’ve gone out of your way to do a favor, is classic understatement.

How Do You Identify Understatement in Writing?

In literature, understatement is one of the ways an author develops characterization. For instance, Holden Caulfield, the narrator of J.D. Salinger’s novel, Catcher in the Rye, says “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.” Along with other details in the narrative, Holden’s use of understatement helps the reader understand that this character suffers from a lack of self worth and depression. Another character might use understatement to belittle others or to demonstrate callousness, dry wit, or bravery.

Examples of Understatement

Understatement Examples 1. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Dark Knight says, “It’s just a scratch” after King Arthur lops off his arm with a sword.

Understatement Examples 2. “I see you like sour cream,” she said to her friend, who has completely covered their nachos with the stuff.

Understatement Examples 3. “I had a little run in with the law,” said the felon serving a sentence of 20 years to life.

Understatement Examples 4. “I’ll be back,” said the Terminator, moments before driving a car straight through the entrance of the police station.

Understatement Examples 5.”The grave’s a fine and private place,/but none I think do there embrace.” —  from the poem “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvel.

(View all literary devices)