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Figure of Speech

Understatement Examples

Understatement is a figure of speech in which there is a contrast between the description and reality. As such, understatement can be used to reflect modesty, sarcasm, derogatory or complimentary tone. Understatement literally refers to what is not being said. In short, the gravity of the statement is undervalued. Consider this example. In David Edding’s ‘The Tamuli’, Emperor Sarabian refers to a hurricane as “a light breeze”, the loss of half his fleet as “a minor inconvenience”, the imminent collapse of his empire as “some civil unrest.” The Tamulis, according to the novel, have a tendency towards extreme politeness, which makes them understate every serious thing so as not to offend. The meaning of the understatement changes according to the context. Understatement is an important rhetorical device that is just the opposite of hyperbole. In hyperbole, everything is overblown, while in understatement the strength of the statement is considerably lessened. The examples given below will help you to understand understatement in its proper context.

Examples Of Understatement

  • “It’s a bit yellow” – while describing a very yellow canary.
  • “There is some music by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony” – while describing Beethoven’s famous work.
  • “The desert is sometimes dry and sandy” – While describing the driest desert in the world.
  • “It is just a little cool today” – when the temperature outside is 5° below zero.
  • “The food was tolerable” – on the food that was prepared by the best chef in the world.
  • “The cars drove at a fair clip” – while watching a car race.
  • “I know a little about running a company” – comment by a successful businessman.
  • “I think we have slightly different opinions on this topic” – instead of saying “I don’t agree with you at all.
  • “It was ok” – when a top ranker was asked about his exam results.
  • “I wouldn’t say he was thin” – describing a very obese person.
  • “He is a little on the old side” – describing a very old person.
  • “I wouldn’t say it tasted great” – on terrible food.
  • “Mumbai is not the cheapest place in the world” – instead of saying Mumbai is expensive.
  • “We have had a little rain” – when the entire area is flooded.
  • “It’s just a scratch” – when there is a huge dent.

In Literature

  • “You have this wonderfully evocative way about you, Luke, of reducing the most excruciatingly uncomfortable circumstances to the merely mundane.” – In ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye’.
  • “People tended not to speak to Chrysoprase in case they said something that offended him. They wouldn’t know it at the time, of course. They’d know it later, when they were in some dark alley and a voice behind them said: Mr. Chrysoprase is really upset.” – In ‘Soul Music’.
  • “It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine.” – In ‘Blandings Castle’.
  • “I understand he has given uniform satisfaction, sir.” – P.G Woodehouse character Jeeves on Shakespere.
  • “We teachers are rather good at magic, you know.”- In ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’.
  • “There will be … displeasure.” – The consequences that the Soviet general says they face if they don’t humiliate British intelligence in ‘From Russia with Love’.
  • “A small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy and .01% by stellar population. … the galaxy’s elder civilisations rate the Idiran-Culture war as … one of those singularly interesting Events they see so rarely these days.” – In ‘Consider Phlebas’ in which the said war lasted 48 years and a month and saw the death of over 851 billion beings.
  • “And you, who have told me a hundred times how deeply you pitied me for the sorceries by which I was bound, will doubtless hear with joy that they are now ended forever. There was, it seems, some small error in your Ladyship’s way of treating them.” – In ‘The Silver Chair’.
  • Daine: “I lost my temper.” – In ‘Emperor Mage’, when Daine finds out that her teacher was killed, she resurrects an army of dinosaur skeletons, sets half of the killer’s imperial palace on fire, destroys the other half, and sets a pack of angry hyenas on him.
  • “To say the Israelis were taken by surprise is to say the Great Wall of China is long.” – In ‘Left Behind’.
  • “I’ve always been a massive admirer of the Edenist ability to understate. But I think defining a chunk of land fifteen kilometers across that suddenly takes flight and wanders off into another dimension as a little problem is possibly the best example yet.” – In ‘Nights Dawn Trilogy’.
  • Mom: It’s okay. Your father and I were just having a little disagreement. Main Character: Yeah, and Mount Everest is a hill. – In ‘Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie’, the parents are loudly arguing when the mom sees the children watching.
  • “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.” – In the ‘Catcher in the Rye’.

In Films

  • “Okay. Successful test.” – Just after annihilating a cleaning cart in ‘Ghostbusters’.
  • “You killed my family. And I don’t like that kind of thing.” – In ‘The Chosen One’.
  • “She’s a little sensitive.” – Describing Moaning Myrtle in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’.
  • “There has been an incident on Praxis.” – In ‘Star Trek VI’ on the destruction of Praxis.
  • “It would appear someone objected to this union and wasn’t able to hold their peace.” – In ‘Kill Bill’ in response to the massacre at the bride’s wedding.
  • “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”- In ‘Fight Club’
  • “Tickled” – When asked how his execution by firing squad went in ‘Wolverine’.
  • “This is gonna ruin my whole day.” – After getting shot in ‘Avatar’
  • “Cannibalism is frowned upon in most societies.” – In ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’
  • “It’s just a flesh wound.” – In ‘The Black Knight’, after having both arms cut off, in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’
  • “Well, that’s cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn’t it?”- On being visited by the Grim Reaper in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’

Understatement is used when the writer or speaker wants to show politeness or modesty. It is also an excellent tool for sarcasm. By expressing something I a way that is lesser than the gravity of the situation demands is an understatement.

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