What Is Hyperbole?

Woman sitting at table with dramatically over-sized cup of coffee

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Hyperbole is a figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect; it's an extravagant statement. In adjective form, the term is hyperbolic. The concept is also called overstatement. Contrast the concept with understatement, and compare it with tall tale.

In the first century, Roman rhetorician Quintilian observed that hyperbole is "commonly used even by ignorant people and peasants, which is understandable, as all people are by nature inclined to magnify or to minimize things and nobody is content to stick to what is really the case" (translated by Claudia Claridge in "Hyperbole in English," 2011).

When Exaggeration for Effect Is Used

Hyperbole is rife in common, everyday informal speech, from saying things like your bookbag weighs a ton, that you were so mad you could have killed someone, or that you could have eaten an entire vat of that delicious dessert.

Mark Twain was a master at it. From "Old Times on the Mississippi" he describes, "I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking from head to foot and could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck out so far."

And humor writer Dave Barry certainly uses it with flair:

"My wife believes that men tend to have insanely high physical standards regarding the kind of woman they're willing to settle for. She notes that a middle-aged man can have tarantula-grade nose hair, b.o. that can cause migrating geese to change course, and enough spare tissue to form a whole new middle-aged man, but this man can still believe he is physically qualified to date Scarlett Johansson." ("I'll Mature When I'm Dead." Berkley, 2010)

It's everywhere in comedy, from stand-up routines to sitcoms, used to tickle the audience's funny bone by putting a surprising image into people's imagination. Take the genre of "Your mama" jokes, such as, "Your mama's hair is so short she could stand on her head and her hair wouldn't touch the ground" or "Your father is so low he has to look up to tie his shoes," quoted in author Onwuchekwa Jemie's book "Yo Mama!

New Raps, Toasts, Dozens, Jokes, and Children's Rhymes From Urban Black America" (Temple Univ. Press, 2003).

People even use hyperbole and literally when they create hyperbole, to make their statement even more outrageous. You definitely don't want to take hyperbole literally.  Take this dialogue of newscaster Kent Brockman on "The Simpsons": "Ladies and gentlemen, I've been to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together." 

It's all over the place in advertising. Just think of any negative attack ad in a political campaign that sounds as if the world will cease to exist should so-and-so take office. Or think of claims made by sporting equipment that imply that using a particular product will make someone a better athlete. People know these claims are exaggerations, but they're effective in making for memorable advertising—which is the point of advertising. It just takes a little critical thinking to examine the ad (and take emotion out of it) to see how the ad is working to appeal to its intended audience and why it wouldn't work for another audience.

Hyperbole: How to Use It Well

You wouldn't use hyperbole in formal writing, such as a business memo, a letter to a business, a scientific report, an essay, or an article for publication.

It could have its use in fiction or other types of creative writing when used for effect, though you'd want to be careful when you use it and how much. A little goes a long way when making use of tools like hyperbole. Also, limiting its use makes each hyperbolic description that remains in the piece more effective. 

"The trick to effective hyperbole is to give an original twist to obviously a fanciful overstatement," author William Saffire advises. "'I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles' would no longer impress Mammy, but Raymond Chandler's 'She was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole through a stained-glass window' still has that crisp crunch of freshness." ("How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar." W.W. Norton, 1990.)

When composing hyperbolic statements, stay away from cliches, as those are just tired and overused—the opposite of fresh language.

The description you create needs to bring forth surprise and/or delight in your audience at the image portrayed by the comparison or description. Don't be afraid to revise a sentence or passage numerous times before you hit on the hyperbolic statement or description you're going to use in the final version. Humor writing is a craft inside of a craft, and it takes time to put just the right words together for the maximum effect.