Understatement | Definition, Examples & Meaning

Rhetoric updated on  March 22, 2024 4 min read

An understatement presents something as less important, less serious, or smaller than it really is. When we understate something we intentionally downplay it to create various effects such as humor, irony, and emphasis.

Understatement example
Calling the movie “good” would be the understatement of the year—it received standing ovations and rave reviews from critics worldwide.


Like overstatements, understatements can be used in different contexts including literature, diplomacy, and everyday conversations.

Understatement definition

An understatement is a literary device used to minimize the significance of a situation deliberately. For instance, a person who is bleeding heavily might say, “It’s just a scratch,” or an athlete who has just completed a marathon might say, “I’m a bit tired.” Both cases demonstrate the use of understatement to downplay the true magnitude of the situation.

People use understatement for several reasons. Sometimes they use understatement ironically to add humor to an otherwise challenging situation, while on other occasions they may use it out of modesty.

For example, someone who has accomplished a great feat may not want to sound conceited. Understatement can also be used to maintain politeness and avoid expressing negative feelings, such as discomfort, or reporting information that might upset others.

Note
Understatement works only if others interpret it as figurative language rather than taking it literally. For instance, while American English does have understatement, it is not used as commonly as it is in British English, where it is more deeply rooted in the culture. This can be confusing for non-native speakers and may cause miscommunication.

Understatement examples

In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act 3, Scene 1), Mercutio is fatally wounded after a duel with Tybalt. Mercutio’s friend Benvolio is concerned, but Mercutio tries to make light of the wound to reassure his friend. However, the audience understands the gravity of the situation, especially when Mercutio immediately sends for a surgeon.

Understatement in literature
Benvolio
What, art thou hurt?

Mercutio
Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch; marry, ‘tis enough. Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.

In diplomacy, where maintaining decorum and fostering communication between countries is paramount, understatement is used to convey criticism or disagreement with tact to preserve relationships.

Understatement example in diplomacy
In diplomatic communication, the following expressions are often used:

  • “Simply not true” allows for the refutation of statements without being too confrontational
  • al disagreement without directly challenging or dismissing the other person’s perspective.
  • “We have had some constructive dialogue” is used to describe diplomatic discussions in a positive light even if progress has been limited.

Diplomatic understatement is also known as guarded understatement.

Types of understatement

Understatement is a broad concept and includes various rhetorical techniques, including the following:

Litotes

Litotes is a particular form of understatement that uses double negatives to express something positive. Depending on the context and tone, litotes can be used to create an understated effect, add emphasis, or be used for verbal irony.

Litotes examples
“He is not a bad cook.” (= “He is a good cook.”)
“That was no small feat.” (= “That was a significant feat.”)
“This was not inexpensive.” (= “This was expensive.”)

Meiosis

Meiosis is a form of understatement that belittles or dismisses something. It is typically characterized by words or phrases that make a statement less forceful or assertive, such as “somewhat” or “almost,” also known as verbal hedges.

Meiosis examples
“His piano performance wasn’t exactly flawless; it had a few tiny imperfections here and there.”

Despite acknowledging some flaws, the speaker uses meiosis to diminish the importance of the imperfections and thus reduce the impact of the criticism.

Euphemism

Euphemism involves replacing a harsh or unpleasant word with a milder one to prevent an offense or avoid the hurt feelings that bluntness may provoke. Euphemisms can be a form of understatement because they downplay the harshness of a situation.

Euphemism example
An example of euphemism is to say “I’ve been let go” instead of “I’ve been fired.”


Recommended articles

Do you want to know more about reasoning, rhetoric, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


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Foreshadowing

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Logos

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Appeal to pity fallacy

Enjambment

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Double entendre

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Ad hominem fallacy

Pathos

Weather vs whether


Frequently asked questions about understatement

What is an example of understatement?

An example of understatement would be to describe a scorching hot day as “a bit warm.” Depending on the context, this understatement could be intended to be ironic, highlighting the extreme heat, or to prevent others from becoming discouraged or overwhelmed.

What is the difference between understatement and verbal irony?

Understatement and verbal irony are related figures of speech but have distinct characteristics.

  • Understatement involves deliberately downplaying the significance of a situation to create emphasis or humor, or to be polite (e.g., a team captain describing their performance as “decent” when their team wins the championship).
  • Verbal irony, on the other hand, involves saying the opposite of what is meant for humor, sarcasm, or to make a point (e.g., saying “What a beautiful day” when it is raining heavily).

In short, both understatement and verbal irony use indirect language to convey meaning, but they do so in different ways.

While they are separate rhetorical devices, they can sometimes overlap, with understatement serving as a form of verbal irony and vice versa.

What is the opposite of understatement?

The opposite of understatement is overstatement. It means expressing something in a way that makes it seem more important or intense than it is; an exaggeration. For example, characterizing a marginal win in an election as a “huge victory” would be an overstatement.

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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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