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Understatement is an expression of lesser strength than what the speaker or writer actually means or than what is normally expected. It is the opposite of embellishment or exaggeration, and is used for emphasis, irony, hedging, or humor. A particular form of understatement using negative syntax is called litotes. This is not to be confused with euphemism, where a polite phrase is used in place of a harsher or more offensive expression.


Understatement may also be called underexaggeration to denote lesser enthusiasm. Understatement also merges the comic with the ironic, as in Mark Twain’s comment, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” [1]

British humour

Understatement often leads to litotes, rhetorical constructs in which understatement is used to emphasize a point. It is a staple of humour in English-speaking cultures. For example, in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life , an Army officer has just lost his leg. When asked how he feels, he looks down at his bloody stump and responds, "Stings a bit."

Other examples

See also

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  1. Meyer H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed. (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015), 169.
  2. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, rev. 4th ed., Anonymous, 14:12, which notes that the quote is "probably apocryphal"
  3. "The day 650 Glosters faced 10,000 Chinese". The Daily Telegraph. 20 April 2001.
  4. Job, Macarthur (1994). Air Disaster Volume 2. Aerospace Publications. pp. 96–107. ISBN   1-875671-19-6.