Ah, the the age-old question: is less more, or is more more? When it comes to word counts, most editors would probably argue less is more in terms of brevity over verbosity, but when it comes to verbal irony, it depends on what effect you’re trying to achieve with your writing. Overstatement and understatement are two contrasting devices of verbal irony, where someone says one thing but means something different. In the case of overstatement, the verbal irony involves exaggeration; whereas, with understatement, the verbal irony is in the underrepresentation of something important. The purpose of both devices is similar: to draw attention to certain details. The effects this can have in writing vary depending upon the context in which these rhetorical devices are used.


Hyperbole, or overstatement, is an intentional and deliberate exaggeration that isn’t to be taken literally. For example: damn, this explanation is taking so long that I’ve died and already reincarnated into my second life. Obviously, that is not only untrue (glares intensely through the screen), but it’s also incredibly unlikely. I doubt anyone has died because of my explanation, let alone reincarnated. A hyperbole which is not only unlikely but also outlandishly impossible is called an adynation. One place where you can find an abundance of such extreme hyperbole to feast your love of inflated one-liners on is none other than Disney.

It makes sense that Disney incorporates this type of humor because it is an easy type of humor to understand and therefore effective for both adults and children. Humor is where hyperbole shines, but it can be employed in such a way that not only amuses but also comments upon a situation. For example, take this skit from Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen”:

Stacking hyperbole upon hyperbole in such a manner is a great way to point out the silliness of a thing otherwise seen as normal or common. In this instance, it’s pointing out the ridiculousness of old people complaining about young people when they were once young themselves. While Monty Python employs a rather absurdist, comical means of criticism, hyperbole can also be a powerful tool for more serious satire. Take this exquisite summary of the Southeastern U.S. by H.L. Mencken:

“It is, indeed, amazing to contemplate so vast a vacuity. One thinks of the interstellar spaces, of the colossal reaches of the now mythical ether. Nearly the whole of Europe could be lost in that stupendous region of fat farms, shoddy cities, and paralyzed cerebrums: one could throw in France, Germany and Italy, and still have room for the British Isles. And yet, for all its size and all its wealth and all the ‘progress’ it babbles of, it is almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”

If by exquisite, I meant exquisitely scathing. Mencken displays his repulsion for Southern culture with some very unsubtle hyperbole that compares it to both the emptiness of space and the to the barrenness of one of the world’s largest deserts. His essay “The Sahara of the Bozart,” from which this excerpt comes, was written in 1917 at a time when Southern literature was bogged down by romanticized notions of an Antebellum South. Although it won him some severe censure, it also had an astounding effect on Southern literature, inspiring a younger generation of Southern writers and helping to bring about the Southern Renaissance, which gave us such literary figures as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Margaret Mitchell.

The purpose of hyperbole is generally to amplify the emotion of a topic, whether it be humor, drama, disgust, or distress. Its job is to make the mundane epic or the trivial important, thus drawing attention to a detail or topic that may otherwise go unnoticed.


The purpose of understatement is to also draw attention but by reducing the emotional reaction toward a topic or situation that should normally warrant high emotion or concern. Month Python is also a great source for examples of understatement:

But it’s no surprise that Monty Python is rife with understatement as English humor is practically built around the understatement. English language and culture is practically built around the understatement. Some of the most well-known understatements in history are made by the British, and that’s no exaggeration.

How about Royal Navy Admiral David Beatty, who said “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today” after two of his ships exploded at the Battle of Jutland during World War I.

Or Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, English baronet, who said “It was rather a serious evening, you know” in response to surviving the sinking of the Titatanic.

And there’s no lack of understatement in English literature either. Jonathan Swift, an Irish writer, is known as one of the greatest satirists (aka, trolls) of all time, penning the infamous A Modest Proposal, whose title is itself an understatement. This essay on the problems of poverty, overpopulation, and wealth disparity in mid-1700 Ireland is a beautiful mixture of both overstatement and understatement. Swift, see, has a unique solution to the country’s problems:

“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or broiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasse, or a ragoust.”

Swift was making dead baby jokes before dead baby jokes were even cool…

“Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots fine for gentlemen.”

This sort of satire is intended to be shocking, and the use of a casual, understated tone only enhances that shock value and more thoroughly elicits the moral outrage Swift was trying to evoke. He intentionally mimics the callous manner in which politicians, religious leaders, and reformers of his time considered the poor: as commodities to be shuffled here or there to best be utilized. His stark criticism highlights the true nature of their machinations: their lack of empathy. This is verbal irony, with understatement at the forefront, at its absolute finest.

Understatement is a way to present a ridiculous notion in a casual manner in order to emphasize an accepted practice that is, underneath its benign surface, also full of fallacies. It can also emphasize the comedic nature of a situation by dowplaying it or can emphasize the modesty, humility, or politeness of a speaker. After all, many of us use understatement in everyday life. How many times have you stated something was fine and been sincere? Or were you being ironic and unconsciously using understatement?

From “On Fire” by KC Green

Verbal irony is an incredibly fun tool. Essayists and comedians are lucky in the amount of verbal irony available for their respective crafts, but that doesn’t mean we other writers can’t use it to spice up some dialogue or make an ethical point or craft an over-the-top character or even build a culture around understated or overstated mannerisms. Let your imagination explode with possibilities! Let your writing speak with a thousand cackling voices or with underwhelming nonchalance!

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