To understate or overstate? A matter of life and death

You’re waiting for a bus on a frosty morning. You notice that “the traffic’s not too bad”.

Now that’s an understatement. You’re using double negatives to express a positive.

If the traffic’s not too bad, it’s good. If you’re not unaware, you know. And if you’re not as young as you use to be, you’re getting on.

Maybe you even want to show off a bit. In which case the literary device is called litotes.

Back to the morning commute. The bus is still nowhere to be seen. You huddle into your coat and think “I’m freezing!”

Bit of an overstatement. You’re exaggerating for the sake of emphasis.

When you claim to be freezing, you’re just feeling the cold. When you say that your bag weighs a ton, you mean that it’s heavy. And if you have a million and one things to do, you’re just busy – and possibly feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

Should you want to show off a tad more, you’re using hyperbole.

"I can smell fear too, I just don't go on about it." Exaggeration is all about understatement and overstatement.

Both terms have their roots in Ancient Greek. And as literary devices they are just as long-established. The poet Homer was using them back in 8th Century BC.

The current tendency to overuse litotes and hyperbole means that the full effect of the exaggeration has gradually been lost. Just think, no one is remotely surprised, or indeed concerned, if you say you’re so hungry you could eat a horse.

Homer, on the other hand, gives us hyperbole at its finest.

On a windless day, the hero Achilles finds himself unable to light the funeral pyre of his friend, Patroclus. So, naturally, he prays to the winds for assistance. His prayer is answered: “the two winds rose with a cry that rent the air and swept the clouds before them”.

Crying, renting, sweeping winds. What a vivid picture!

Emulate Homer, the world’s most influential writer: use litotes and hyperbole and avoid the humdrum and the obvious.

A word of warning though. Be sparing in your use. Understatement and overstatement are exaggeration and constant exaggeration is boring.

And the last thing you want to do is bore your reader to, er, death. If you see what I mean.