What is the definition of understatement?

The definition of understatement is a description that places less importance on its subject than is expected or warranted.

Understatement

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179

Writers use understatement to intentionally downplay the significance of something by describing it in terms that are much milder and lacking in emphasis than the reader would expect. Understatement creates an ironic effect and is sometimes used for comedic purposes.

Correct examples:

  • In Romeo and Juliet , after his fight...

(The entire section contains 179 words.)

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this Guide to Literary Terms study guide. You'll get access to all of the Guide to Literary Terms content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

  • Introduction
  • Complete Index
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Writers use understatement to intentionally downplay the significance of something by describing it in terms that are much milder and lacking in emphasis than the reader would expect. Understatement creates an ironic effect and is sometimes used for comedic purposes.

Correct examples:

  • In Romeo and Juliet, after his fight with Tybalt, Mercutio tells Benvolio that the mortal wound he has received is “a scratch, a scratch.” Mercutio is aware that he is dying and that his stab wound is much worse than a “scratch.”
  • In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield tells Mrs. Morrow, “I have to have this operation . . . It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain." Holden is lying, but if he really did have a brain tumor, that would be a serious issue requiring a serious operation.
  • Saying “It’s a bit chilly” to describe below-freezing weather, “It wasn’t terrible” to describe a wonderful experience, or “I got a little carried away” to explain an extreme course of action are all examples of understatement.

 

Explore all literary terms.


Illustration of PDF document

Download Guide to Literary Terms Study Guide

Subscribe Now
Previous

Syntax

Next

Theme