Hyperbole, the counterpart of understatement, deliberately exaggerates conditions for emphasis or effect. In formal writing the hyperbole must be clearly intended as an exaggeration, and should be carefully restricted. That is, do not exaggerate everything, but treat hyperbole like an exclamation point, to be used only once a year. Then it will be quite effective as a table-thumping attention getter, introductory to your essay or some section thereof:There are a thousand reasons why more research is needed on solar energy. I said "rare," not "raw." I've seen cows hurt worse than this get up and get well. This stuff is used motor oil compared to the coffee you make, my love.
Understatement deliberately expresses an idea as less important than it actually is, either for ironic emphasis or for politeness and tact. When the writer's audience can be expected to know the true nature of a fact which might be rather difficult to describe adequately in a brief space, the writer may choose to understate the fact as a means of employing the reader's own powers of description. For example, instead of endeavoring to describe in a few words the horrors and destruction of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, a writer might state:
- The 1906 San Francisco earthquake interrupted business somewhat in the downtown area.
The effect is not the same as a description of destruction, since understatement like this necessarily smacks of flippancy to some degree; but occasionally that is a desirable effect. Consider these usages:
- Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and everybody smiled . . . . To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well . . . . --Jane Austen
- Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. --Jonathan Swift
- You know I would be a little disappointed if you were to be hit by a drunk driver at two a.m., so I hope you will be home early.
In these cases the reader supplies his own knowledge of the facts and fills out a more vivid and personal description than the writer might have.