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Hyperbole and Litotes

In Business Communication, Aim for Understatement as Opposed to Overstatement.

Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration to make a point. Litotes is deliberate understatement also to make a point.

In classical Greece and Rome, speakers recognized hyperbole and litotes as useful devices. Unfortunately, writers today work in an environment dominated by journalists and their objectivity standard, so they wisely avoid rhetoric that seems like exaggeration.

Hyperbole calls attention to itself by making something significantly greater than it is. In his declaration of war speech, Franklyn Roosevelt famously crossed out the word “history,” and announced that December 7 was a day that would live in “infamy.”

Litotes exaggerates in the other direction; it creates emphasis by under-describing something, usually by using a negative to assert a positive. St. Paul, speaking of heaven, says he is a “citizen of no mean city.” Shakespeare used both litotes and hyperbole in Hamlet’s epitaph for his father: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.”

These devices add space to our ideas. Language without them has less range and is less thought provoking. My mother was a master of hyperbole. When she was bored, she was bored to tears. Sometimes she was even bored to death. Of course she never wept or needed resuscitation when listening to my tedious uncle speak at the dinner table; she was just engaging in meaningful and succinct rhetorical criticism.

Ring Lardner

Baseball is home to many fine examples of hyperbole. In fact, a baseball announcer could probably call a whole game using only hyperbole. A base runner can be out by a mile and a hitter can hit the ball a mile. Or you could say he crushed the ball, or sent it into orbit.

Baseball has also generated some fine uses of litotes. Someone batting over .300 has a good stick. A fielder who makes acrobatic plays has a good glove. If a batter went four for four he was really seeing the ball.

Ring Lardner, a sports writer and novelist, used hyperbole for comic effect. He describes a fictional pitcher who threw a fastball so hard that the hitter was still swinging at it when the catcher threw it back to the pitcher. The pitcher’s change up was so slow that the batter got in three swings before it crossed the plate.

If hyperbole and litotes are used artfully the reader or listener gets the point and knows not to take the phrase literally. The key to making these tropes work then is to exaggerate so much that the point is well made, and that a literal interpretation is impossible.

Mike Ditka

When Mike Ditka was a young tight end negotiating his contract, he said George Halas was throwing nickels around like manhole covers. No one thought that the owner of the Bears was dismantling the Chicago sewer system.

Ditka meant that Halas was cheap. Everyone got his point, including Halas, who responded by trading Ditka to the Dallas Cowboys.

Litotes is preferable to hyperbole in business communication. The main focus of all corporate communication should be trust. Companies referencing themselves with hyperbole are bragging.

Whenever we brag and make strong positive statements about ourselves we are challenging our listeners to prove us wrong. This isn’t the kind of communication that builds relationships.

Litotes, on the other hand, expresses humility. The city of Chicago has a tradition of identifying itself using litotes. For many years it was known officially as “Chicago the City that Works.” Unofficially it was affectionately called “Second City.”

We tend to trust people more if they play down their strengths. Mission statements and advertising copy might contain strong, confident language, but press releases and interviews with reporters should aim for understatement as opposed to overstatement.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..