Understatement is when you express an idea with a much lower degree of importance, emphasis, or emotion than it really should be given. For example, if a man is extremely good-looking, you can describe it like this:
He's so handsome!
What a hottie!
Or you can use understatement:
He's not a bad-looking guy.
I've seen worse-looking men.
You can think of understatement as kind of the opposite of exaggeration:
He's the most beautiful man I've ever seen!
When you exaggerate, you state something with more emphasis, or at a higher level, than it really is. Both understatement and exaggeration can draw people's attention to an idea, but in different ways. Exaggeration feels active and energetic, while understatement feels quieter and more subtle.
Reasons for using understatement
There are several reasons for using understatement. One is to act modest. If you've travelled all around the world, and someone asks you if you've been to many foreign countries, it's more polite to say:
Yeah, I've been to a few places.
If you say it correctly (by emphasizing "a few"), the listener will understand that you've really been to a lot of different countries.
Another reason for understatement is to disagree with someone or criticize them without coming across as too aggressive. For example, if your teenage child makes a big mistake, you can use understatement instead of yelling at them:
That probably wasn't the smartest thing for you to do.
You really could have handled that better, you know.
PhraseMix lessons with understatement
Check out the understatement topics page for some PhraseMix lessons that incorporate understatement: