Kendall WaltonKendall Walton

Professor of Philosophy, University of Michigan.

Visit Kendall Walton’s website here.


Understatement, Overstatement, and Irony
Wednesday, 2 March 2011
13:30-15:30 at Senate House, Jessel Room (first floor)


It is tempting to suppose that overstatement and understatement, hyperbole and meiosis, are analogous figures of speech, differing only in whether the speaker represents a quantity as larger, or as smaller, than she means to claim that it is. Things get messy, however, when we notice that to overstate how large or expensive or distant something is, is to understate how small or inexpensive or close it is, and vice versa. Nevertheless, traditionally recognized, paradigmatic examples of over- and understatement function very differently in everyday conversation. I propose an account of the two figures that counts some utterances, in their conversational contexts, as overstatements of a quantity but not understatements of the opposite quantity, and other utterances as understatements only. This account shows why understatement is closely related to irony (as many have noticed), and explains why ironical understatement is so common. It also helps to explain what irony in general is and how it works. Overstatement, however, turns out to be an entirely different kettle of fish.

Co-sponsored by:

Heythrop College

Poets, Musical Personae and Speechwriters
Tuesday, 13 June 2006
17:00-19:00 at Birckbeck College, MB532