Verbal irony can take many forms, each with its own characteristics and purpose. What is understatement? Understatement is a type of verbal irony that turns language into an opportunity to say a lot with a little. Mastering understatement is a great tool for any writer looking to bring sophistication and nuance to their dialogue. Let’s define understatement with examples that show just how versatile it can be.
A Brief Overview
When it comes to dialogue, having a character say exactly what they mean can be boring. Sure, there are plenty of moments when clarity is the best way to go but verbal irony provides opportunities for subtext.
One way this is done is with understatement, which can applied in many different ways for many different reasons. Before we jump into our understatement examples, we'll begin with a quick definition.
What is understatement?
Understatement is when you say something to intentionally downplay what you actually mean. It is the opposite of exaggeration, a more subtle way to communicate how you really feel. If verbal irony is saying the "opposite" of what you mean, understatement is simply saying "less" of what you mean.
- When it's pouring rain and someone says, "Do you think I need an umbrella?"
- If someone has a deathly peanut allergy and says, "Peanuts and I don't have the best relationship."
Now that we've covered the definition of understatement, let's look at some examples to see the myriad of ways it can be used.
HOW TO USE UNDERSTATEMENT
Apply understatement for comedy
Understatement is an ideal vehicle to deliver jokes and one-liners. An understated retort or a snappy comment can really add to the humor. And there is perhaps no better example of this than King Arthur's clash with The Black Knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail.
When things start going really bad for The Black Knight, his self-assessment is understated to a ridiculous level.
Subtle is Sinister
Use understatement for drama
“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” is a chilling line from The Godfather. The exterior meaning of this line is that Don Corleone will simply negotiate with Woltz but the interior meaning is much more sinister: if Woltz doesn’t agree, he will be murdered.
This is a deadly example of understated verbal irony.
Subtle is Sinister
Add understatement for emphasis
Understatement can be used to add a sense of urgency. In this iconic example from Jaws, Brody's line suggests his internal panic with him actually panicking. He could have run around the boat yelling, "We're in trouble! We need help! Oh, my God!" but that's not in his character.
We've seen him calmly dealing with his fear of sharks and the ocean for most of the movie, which makes this understated moment layered with meaning, in line with his character, and perfectly delivered.
Dive deeper into irony
We've covered the basics of understatement but there is so much more to learn. Perhaps your next stop should be overstatement to round out this pair of similar subtypes. If there is a particular form of irony you want to explore further, just follow the navigation below. Each one of these subtypes of irony belongs in every writer's toolkit.