Examples of Understatement: Meaning and Common Types

, Staff Writer
Updated July 16, 2021
understatement vehicle in a flood
    understatement vehicle in a flood
    Tobias Titz / Getty
    Used under license from Getty Images

Have you ever made something seem less important than it was? Well, then you've used an understatement. Just in case you're still a bit confused, learn what an understatement is through understatement examples found in speech, literature and song.

Understatement Definition

While you can see understatement in everyday speech, most people are looking for an understatement literary definition. By definition, an understatement is when you represent something as less than what it is. This can be done in writing or in speech. When you make an understatement, the issue at hand is minimalized or made to seem less important or severe. This can be done for an ironic effect or simply to be polite. In fact, there are a few different types of understatement.


Different Types of Understatement

Understatements can be used for different purposes and outcomes. No matter what the type, the reason they are used is the same: to make something seem less than it really is. See the different types of understatement examples you might encounter.

Comedic Understatement

A comedic understatement adds humor to an otherwise serious situation. For example, there is a hurricane at your vacation home and there is most likely severe damage to the house. You say, "At least the plants will get watered."

Modest Understatement

A modest understatement is used instead of bragging or boasting about something. For example, winning your first trophy and saying it was "not a big deal" when it really was a big deal.


Polite Understatement

A polite understatement can be used in difficult situations when you may disagree with someone's opinion but still want to remain polite. For example, when talking politics and you and a friend are on completely opposite sides, but you simply say, "I think our opinions are slightly different on this matter." Or, if someone asks you to describe someone who is very short, you say, "Well, he's not tall."

Everyday Real World Understatements

There are many examples of understatements used in everyday speech and writing. Explore some different examples of comedic, modest and polite understatements you might encounter.

  • You just hit the biggest lottery of all time! A modest understatement would be: "I'm kind of excited."
  • You are out to dinner with a friend who spills food down the front of her white shirt. A polite understatement would be: "Really, it's hardly noticeable."
  • You get the highest grade in the class. A modest understatement would be: "I did OK on that test."
  • You scrape the entire side of your car. A comedic understatement would be: "It is only a small scratch."
  • Describing a huge storm overnight, a comedic understatement would be: "Looks like it rained a bit last night."
  • You just had to work a double shift. A comedic understatement would be: "I just need to rest my eyes for a minute."
  • Your team wins the biggest game of the season. A modest understatement would be: "Yeah, we played pretty well today."
  • On the coldest day of the year with record low temperatures, a comedic understatement would be: "I might need a jacket today."
  • Your friend invites you over to see their new fixer-upper. You are shocked at the poor condition of the house. A polite understatement would be: “Oh, it will need some fresh paint.”
  • A person flips out in anger over a hockey game on television and breaks their TV. A comedic understatement would be: "I have a little bit of a temper."
  • You land your dream job after endless interviews and get offered a generous salary with lots of benefits. A modest understatement would be: "I am pretty happy with my new job offer."
  • Referring to Oprah Winfrey, a comedic understatement would be: "She has some money."

Understatement Examples in Literature

Understatements are also found in poetry and literature. An understatement plays with the reader's expectations — downplaying a situation when the reader might imagine a more intense response. See a few understatement examples found in famous literature and poetry.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield effectively uses understatement in his dialogue to calm the woman's concern over his leaving school.

“I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, when Mercutio is stabbed by Tybalt, Mercutio definitely uses an understatement to talk about his wound.

"Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry,
’tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain,
fetch a surgeon."

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Professor McGonagall is known for her dry humor and use of understatement in the Harry Potter series. You can see this in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

“'I think so,' said Professor McGonagall dryly, 'we teachers are rather good at magic, you know.'”

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" short poem ironically downplays the end of the world through the use of understatement.

"Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice."

Understatement Examples in Songs

You can often find the use of understatements in songs. Artists use understatements to make light of a situation or for rhetorical or ironic effect. Check out these lyrics using understatement by several different song artists.

  • "It’s the end of the world as we know it,/ and I feel fine." - "It's the End of the World as We Know It" by REM
  • "I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell." - "Unwell" by Matchbox Twenty
  • "Through it all, just one thing died,/ A little thing called love, something deep inside." - "You and Me (We Wanted It All)" by Frank Sinatra
  • "I ain't blue, baby,/ Just a little bit lonesome for some lovin',/ Everything is fine,/ Just don't want to be all by myself." - "I Ain't Blue" by Bonnie Raitt
  • "I guess that I'm not/ Feelin' so hot,/ Must've woke up on the wrong side of my rat-infested cot,/ How profoundly I regret this entire tete-a-tete,/ It's just sometimes I get a little upset." - "A Little Upset" by James Snyder

Identifying and Using Understatement

As you can see, anything that is made less important than it really is can be identified as an understatement. Exaggeration or hyperbole and overstatements are the complete opposite, where something is blown out of proportion. Understatements are sometimes not well defined and are subtly said to another person out of rhetoric. Oftentimes, the response to one is "Well, that is an understatement!"