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Life skills tip of the week: understatement

Express-Yourself-MEDO-Web-232x300pxAs part of this year’s pragmatics series, we bring more useful content and tips from the Macmillan Dictionary on expressing yourself.

The previous language tip looked at ways of saying you are unsure about something.



This week’s tip gives some ways of using understatement.

Understatement is the practice, very common in spoken English, of saying things in a way that is less strong or forceful than might be expected in the circumstances. There are very many ways of using understatement. Here are some common ones:

One way of using understatement is simply to downplay the extent of a success, failure or difficulty:
“Five-nil, a stunning victory, you must be delighted.” “Yes, we did OK.”
Ladies and gentlemen we have a slight problem, one of the engines appears to be on fire.

Another very common way of using understatement is to say that someone or something does not have a particular quality that is the opposite of the one they actually have. So instead of saying that something is bad, you can say that it is not good; or if you want to say that someone is unpleasant or unkind, you can say that they are not nice:
The financial situation of the club is not good.
My first husband was not a nice man.

The phrase not exactly can be used to add emphasis to a statement of this kind:
£300,000 for a picture is not exactly cheap (= it’s very expensive).
She’s not exactly the world’s greatest singer (= she is a very bad singer).
My managers were not exactly what you’d call sympathetic people (= they were very unsympathetic).

You can use the phrases not much fun or not my idea of fun to say that an experience is unpleasant or not enjoyable:
It’s not much fun having a tooth out without anaesthetic (= it is very unpleasant).
Spending all day in the library is  not my idea of fun (= I hate spending all day in the library).

Words and phrases such as very, really and at all can also be used with not to add emphasis to an understatement:
Shouting at other people is not a very good idea (= it’s a very bad idea).
Brian was not at all a nice person (= he was a very unpleasant person).

Another common way of making understatements is to use adverbs such as rather, pretty and quite:
The weather’s been pretty awful hasn’t it (= it’s been absolutely terrible).
We had rather a good meal there (= it was an excellent meal).
The news came as quite a surprise (= we were astonished by the news).

There are a number of colourful expressions that are used for understatement:
Danny’s not the sharpest tool in the box/not the brightest bulb on the tree (= he is quite stupid).
She’s not exactly in the first flush of youth  (= she is quite old).
Getting mugged on the metro wasn’t a bundle/barrel of laughs (=it was unpleasant, frightening etc).

Would you like to learn more about pragmatics? Keep a close eye on our pragmatics page where the seventh of our life skills lesson plans was published recently. For more information about Life Skills, visit the Macmillan Life Skills page.

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Liz Potter

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