Guide to Literary Terms

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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.

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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.

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