Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms - Definition and Examples

Ryan J Lane/Getty Images


Understatement is a figure of speech in which a writer or speaker deliberately makes a situation seem less important or serious than it is. Contrast with hyperbole.

Jeanne Fahnestock points out that understatement (particularly in the form known as litotes) "is often used for self-deprecation on the rhetor's part, as when the heavily decorated war hero says 'I have a few medals,' or someone who has just won on American Idol observes 'I did OK'" (Rhetorical Style, 2011).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:


  • "A soiled baby, with a neglected nose, cannot be conscientiously regarded as a thing of beauty." (Mark Twain)
  • "I have to have this operation. It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain."(Holden Caulfield in The Catcher In The Rye, by J. D. Salinger)
  • "Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse." (Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub, 1704)
  • "The grave's a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace." (Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress")
  • "I am just going outside and may be some time." (Captain Lawrence Oates, Antarctic explorer, before walking out into a blizzard to face certain death, 1912)
  • Vance: My, we are certainly in a good mood this morning.
    Pee-wee: That, my dear Vance, is the understatement of the year. Everything seems completely different to me today. The air smells so fresh. The sky seems a brand-new shade of blue. I don't think I've ever noticed the beauty of this leaf. And Vance, have you always been so handsome? (Wayne White and Paul Reubens in Big Top Pee-wee, 1988)
  • "This [double helix] structure has novel features which are of considerable biological interest.(Opening sentence of the Nature article announcing Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA)
  • "Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core." (Anton Ego in Ratatouille, 2007)
  • "The new EU member states of Poland and Lithuania have been arguing this week for the summit to be called off, and criticizing the German preparations. For historical reasons, the east Europeans are highly sensitive to any sign of Germany cutting deals with Russia over their heads." (The Guardian, May 17, 2007)
  • "Well, that's cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn't it?"(Dinner guest, after a visit from the Grim Reaper, in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life)
  • "The adjective 'cross' as a description of his Jove-like wrath that consumed his whole being jarred upon Derek profoundly. It was as though Prometheus, with the vultures tearing his liver, had been asked if he were piqued." (P. G. Wodehouse, Jill the Reckless, 1922)

British Understatement

  • "The British are feeling the pinch in relation to recent terrorist bombings and threats to destroy nightclubs and airports, and therefore have raised their security level from 'Miffed' to 'Peeved.' Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to 'Irritated' or even 'A Bit Cross.' Brits have not been 'A Bit Cross' since the Blitz in 1940 when tea supplies all but ran out."
    (anonymous post on the Internet, July 2007)
  • "Understatement is still in the air. It is not just a specialty of the English sense of humour; it is a way of life. When gales uproot trees and sweep away roofs of houses, you should remark that it is 'a bit blowy.' I have just been listening to a man who got lost in a forest abroad for a week and was scrutinised by hungry wolves, smacking their lips. Was he terrified? - asked the television interviewer, obviously a man of Italian origin. The man replied that on the seventh day when there were no rescuers in sight and the sixth hungry wolf joined the pack, he 'got a bit worried.' Yesterday, a man in charge of a home where 600 old people lived, which was found to be a fire risk where all the inhabitants might burn to death, admitted: 'I may have a problem.'" (George Mikes, How to Be a Brit. Penguin, 1986)


  • "Understatement is a form of irony: the ironical contrast inheres in the discrepancy between what one would be expected to say and his actual refusal to say it."
    (Cleanth Brooks, Fundamentals of Good Writing: A Handbook of Modern Rhetoric. Harcourt, 1950)
  • "The use of understatement is something that satirists have a mastery of, but as a rhetorical device, we can use it to try to persuade someone by rewording a sentence in less offensive terms. For example, suppose we believe a person's idea to be in error and wish to point this out:
    I think there may be some additional factors that you may not have accounted for.
    Your analysis is far too simplistic.

No one will take such an idiotic theory seriously.

  • There are many other alternatives we could use, but consider that if we want to convince the person that they are mistaken then we need to pitch our objections accordingly. Perhaps the idea really is idiotic ... but is saying as much likely to incline them to change their opinion? For the second suggestion, it may depend on who we are talking to: a friend, say, may welcome the criticism but a stranger may not appreciate his or her thought being called simplistic, even if it is. Some people might still take offense at the first version, but the determining influences include what we want to achieve and whom we are talking to or writing for. How likely is a person to listen to our critique if they suspect we are talking down to them or dismissing them?" (Heinz Duthel, History and Philosophy of Science. Lulu, 2008)



Also Known As:

litotes, diminutio

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Understatement." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/understatement-figure-of-speech-1692570. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Understatement. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understatement-figure-of-speech-1692570 Nordquist, Richard. "Understatement." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/understatement-figure-of-speech-1692570 (accessed March 20, 2023).