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Understatement & Litotes: Differences, Definitions & Examples

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  • 0:05 What Is Understatement?
  • 2:54 What Are Litotes?
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

In this lesson, explore the use of understatement as a way to draw attention to a specific quality or to add humor. Learn about litotes, a specific form of understatement, and discover examples from literature.

What Is Understatement?

In the 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, King Arthur attempts to cross a bridge, but the Black Knight refuses to let him pass. King Arthur and the Black Knight battle, with Arthur chopping the knight's left arm clean off.

'Tis but a scratch,' the Black Knight says, with comically red blood squirting out of his left shoulder.

They argue further, with Arthur pointing out the knight's severed arm on the ground. The Black Knight says, 'I've had worse.'

The scene continues, with King Arthur chopping off all of the knight's four limbs, and each time the Black Knight says something to dramatically downplay his injuries. 'It's just a flesh wound,' the armless knight says.

The comedy in this scene relies heavily on understatement, or the use of minimized language to call attention to what is usually quite obvious. Think of understatement as the opposite of exaggeration.

Exaggeration overstates a situation - 'I could eat a horse!' when you are hungry - while understatement underplays the situation - 'Tis' a scratch', when the knight loses all of his limbs.

Understatement, like exaggeration, draws attention to an aspect of a given situation but does it by underplaying the truth.

Understatement is a handy literary technique. While it can be used to create humorous situations, like the scene between the Black Knight and King Arthur, it can also help a writer make a more serious statement.

The poem 'Fire and Ice' by Robert Frost begins on an upbeat note: 'Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice.' Okay, it wasn't upbeat; that was an understatement intended to draw attention to the fact that this poem is quite serious.

Frost continues, comparing the destructive powers of both fire and ice, and the poem ends with following lines:

'I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.'

Frost sets us up for a big revelation using the words 'hate,' 'destruction' and 'great.' Instead, the last word is fairly underwhelming: 'suffice' is not a very strong word and means 'enough' or 'adequate.'

'Sure, ice can destroy the whole world,' the speaker seems to say with a shrug. By understating the ice's destructive power, Frost causes the reader to question his intended meaning.

The most extreme form of understatement is sarcasm, which is 'when the speaker says the exact opposite of what they mean, often for comedic effect'.

Sarcasm is when someone jokes that they hate the Star Wars movies, but their entire house is covered in Star Wars memorabilia. We know they really love Star Wars, and the humor lies in how they dramatically understate their interest in it. Sarcasm is used in many ways in literature, from sarcastic teenagers and dry-humored old men to the witty banter in a play of manners, like The Importance of Being Earnest.

What Are Litotes?

Litotes are a specific type of understatement where instead of expressing something in a straightforward and often positive way, a negative term or terms are used to create emphasis.

Instead of the affirmative sentence, 'My friend Briana is funny,' imagine if I said, 'My friend Briana is not unfunny.' The first expresses the sentiment in a simple way, so there is no denying that she is indeed funny (which she is). It comes off as a compliment: 'My friend Briana is funny.'

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