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Real World English – Understatement and irony

Written by Ed Pegg

Welcome to the ninth in this series of posts on Real World English by Ed Pegg. In this series of videos and blog posts we are looking at how words are used in context around the world and how differences in usage in different countries and cultural contexts can cause misunderstanding. We look at differences between US and British English, some common expressions in other English speaking countries and also give you an understanding of the complex topic of pragmatics – how language is used in context. In the ninth video Ed looks at understatement and irony.

If someone tells you there’s been ‘a bit of a situation’, how serious would you think the problem is? Well, to be honest, it would depend a lot on where the person comes from. If an American says ‘there’s a bit of a situation’ it would probably be a small problem but, if this is said by a British person, it could be a really big problem. The reason for this is that understatement is common in British English. When you understate things, you make them seem less important or serious than they actually are. In American English, it’s more common to say things more directly.



This difference is again related to politeness styles. In the US, it’s common to treat people as equal, so it’s absolutely fine just to give them information directly. In Britain, people don’t like forcing their views on others, this means that they’ll often draw your attention to a problem but not want to tell you the exact size of the problem.

If you’re familiar with this communication style, it’s easy to identify, but at first it can seem strange, especially if you take the speaker at face value and then the problem turns out to be very serious. If you find this form of understatement confusing, it’s best to ask the speaker to be more direct by asking follow up questions, such as: What is the problem? How serious is it? It’s harder to answer a direct question with understatement.

It’s also said that irony and sarcasm are more common in Britain than the US. This isn’t strictly true, it’s just different. In Britain these forms of humour are often underplayed and you have to identify the sarcasm yourself. In the US, people are more likely to say something like ‘just kidding’ after a joke to make sure you see the irony or sarcasm. This again goes back to the US politeness style. The American wants you to know they were making a joke to make sure you know you’re both equal, as this is important for Americans.

I hope you are enjoying learning about English in the real world and I look forward to seeing you next time. You can catch up on the previous videos and posts, and you can follow my series of monthly blog posts on this topic using the tag realworldenglish.

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Ed Pegg

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