Understatement: Definition and Examples of Understatement in Speech & Literature

There are many times that understatement is used within the English language, this might in the form of a spoken conversation or within a written text such as prose, poetry or song. But what is understatement and how is it used? In this article we are going to look at the answers to both of these questions. We will also take a look at some examples of understatement being used in both a spoken sense and that of a literary sense.


Understatement Definition

What is Understatement?

When someone uses the figurative language of understatement they are using language which does not convey the full meaning of what they are talking about. What is being said is described with a lesser strength than what is reality or what is expected. When using understatement, the subject may be described as being much less important than what it literally is and the reason for using this type of language is to play down a situation, item or concept.

When used as a literary device, understatement is often used to add a more humorous effect to the situation which is being talked about. The same can be said when it is used in spoken language. Using understatement purposefully and comically makes something sound less important than what it really is.

Understatement Examples

Examples of Understatement in Spoken Language

During the spoken conversation, one might hear the use of understatement very frequently as it is a very common form of the figure of speech within day to day English. We are now going to take a look at some examples of understatement as it is used in a spoken context.

  • “A desert can sometimes be dry and hot.” In this example, the desert is being described in a much less severe way than it is in reality.
  • The football team lost 10-0, they did not do too well.” This example uses understatement to talk about how badly the football team played by saying the didn’t do too well when in reality they did awfully.
  • There was a bit of rain in the night.” this statement being made by someone after a flood understates how much rain there actually was.
  • When the weather is below freezing, an understatement might be made by saying ‘it’s a little nippy today.
  • A person who got amazing grades in a test might use understatement by saying “I think I did OK in that exam”
  • It is only a little scratch.” an understatement made when noticing a huge scrape along the side of your car.
  • On viewing a very run-down house, an understatement might be something like “it needs a fresh lick of paint doesn’t it.
  • Someone who regularly gets very enraged might be described in an understated way as “having a little bit of a temper.
  • When referring to someone who is morbidly obese, an understatement might be “she carries a little extra weight.
  • If one were to find themselves in a tragic situation, they might use an understated phrase such as “we seem to be in a bit of a pickle.
  • When two people are having a heated argument, an onlooker might use understatement to talk about the situation by saying “I think that they have a different opinion on the matter.”
  • After running a marathon, a way to use understatement to describe the fatigue might be “I am a little tired after all that running.”
  • After enjoying a meal prepared by the top chef in the world, an understatement might be made by saying “the food was alright, I guess.”

Examples of Understatement in Literature

There are many times in which understatement has been used as a literary device. We will now take a look at some examples of times that it has been used in various written texts.

  • “It isn’t too serious, I have a tiny tumour on my brain.” This is an example of understatement from The catcher in the rye by Salinger.
  • In the novel Emperor mage written by Tara Pierce, we see a good example of understatement in the line ‘I thought they had murdered you, I quite lost my temper.’
  • In “The silver chain” written by Primula Bond we see an example of understatement when she describes mistake that ends someone’s powers as ‘a small error.’
  • In the play Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, we see a very good example of understatement when a character who has been stabbed describes it as “a scratch.”
  • In the song by Matchbox Twenty called I’m not crazy, we see an example of understatement in the line ‘I am not crazy, I am just a little bit unwell.”
  • “The grave is a private and fine place,” is an understatement for the finality and seriousness of death which can be seen in the piece To his coy mistress written by Andrew Marvell.
  • In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see an example of understatement when a severed arm is described as “a flesh wound” and a stabbing is described as “merely a scratch.”
  • In the movie, Bruce Almighty, the main character uses understatement to describe the light of God as “kind of bright.”
  • In the novel The Great Gatsby written by F Scott Fitzgerald, we can see an example of understatement when a character describes his palace as “a nice place I have here.”
  • In the short story Hills like white elephants, Ernest Hemingway uses understatement to describe the trauma of abortion by saying “they just let in the air and its all wonderfully natural from there.”


In this article, we have looked closely at what understatement is and how it is used. We have seen that understatement is a way in which a speaker or a writer can lessen the seriousness or importance of a place, situation, idea or object but using language which lowers the strength of what is being said. Understatement is a common form of figurative language used in day to day conversation and also plays an important part in adding a humorous effect to many different types of written work.

Understatement Infographic

Understatement: Definition and Useful Examples in Spoken Language & LiteraturePin

Last Updated on May 9, 2020

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1 thought on “Understatement: Definition and Examples of Understatement in Speech & Literature”

  1. A comedian telling an unresponsive audience, “you all are a great crowd”



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