The UVic Writer's Guide

Hyperbole And Understatement

Hyperbole is figurative language which greatly overstates or exaggerates facts, whether in earnest or for comic effect.

For example, at the burial of Ophelia in Hamlet (1600), her brother Laertes leaps into her grave and asks that the earth be piled on both of them "Till of this flat a mountain you have made"; at which Hamlet then outdoes Laertes figuratively by calling for "millions of acres" to be piled on all three.

On the other hand, understatement purposefully represents a thing as much less significant than it is, achieving an ironic effect

In Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729), which suggests eating children as a solution for Ireland's poverty, the speaker raises possible objections to dispense with them, saying, "some scrupulous People might be apt to censure such a Practice (although indeed very unjustly) as a little bordering upon Cruelty."

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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated September 23, 1995