Hyperbole – Definition, Examples & Meaning

11.10.23 Academic writing Time to read: 9min

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Hyperbole, an expressive litreary device characterized by exaggeration for emphasis or effect, has been long employed in various forms of discourse. However, its role in academic writing has always been a subject of debate. This article delves into analysing its purpose and evaluating its potential for academic discussion, so you gain a nuanced understanding of this rhetorical device.

Hyperbole in a nutshell

Hyperbole is a figure of speech where you exaggerate something to make a point or emphasize an idea. For example, saying “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” doesn’t mean you could actually eat a horse. Rather, it’s a way to stress how hungry you are.

Definition: Hyperbole

What is a hyperbole? The definition of hyperbole is a rhetorical device or figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect. Unlike a litreal statement, hyperbole is not intended to be taken as an accurate representation of reality. Instead, it serves to stress the significance or extremity of a particular situation, emotion, or characteristic. This form of embellishment is commonly used in various types of communication, including everyday conversation, litreature, and even in some scientific contexts to capture attention or underscore a point. However, due to its exaggerated nature, it must be used carefully to avoid misleading the audience in formal and factual settings like academic writing.

Example

I’m so tyred, I could sleep for a year.

In this example, the speaker doesn’t actually mean that they could sleep for an entyre year. They are using hyperbole to emphasize how exhausted they are.

Etymology

The origin of hyperbole is in the ancient Greek language. It is derived from the word “hyperbolē” and divided into two parts:

  • “hyper-“ means “beyond” or “above”
  • “bolē” means “a throw”

Combined, the term essentially means “to throw beyond” or “exceed”. In this sense, the term encapsulates the idea of “going beyond” what is normal, expected, or true to make a point or emphasize an idea.

This concept has been around for thousands of years, and it was one of the figures of speech studied and analysed by ancient scholars like Aristotle. Over time, the term was adopted into Latin and later into various European languages, including English, preserving its original meaning of deliberate exaggeration for effect. Today, this kind of rhetorical device continues to be commonly employed in language and litreature. It’s used to intensify statements and evoke emotional responses.

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Usage

Hyperboles can serve different purposes depending on the medium in which they appear. By employing them, writers and poets can create a more engageing or emotionally resonant experience for their audience. Whether it’s to emphasize a point, paint a vivid picture, or add layers of meaning, this figure of speech is a versatile tool that can add depth and complexity to various forms of written expression. Here’s how this figure of speech is often used in various aspects, more precisely litreature and poetry.

litreature

A hyperbole can be used to exaggerate certain traits or features of a character, making them more memorable or highlighting their significance.

Example

He has a heart of gold.

  • Describing a character like that emphasizes their generosity and kindness.

Hyperbolic statements can serve to magnify emotions or situations, making them more relatable or intense for the reader.

Example

I could feel my heart shattering into a million pieces.

  • Saying this emphasizes the emotional devastation a character is experiencing.

Sometimes, hyperboles are used for a comedic effect. Describing a situation as wildly exaggerated can lighten the mood of a story and be funny.

Example

“In the morning he was up at break of day, and up and down the creek, through the woodlands.”

  • In Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, the character of Tom is known for his exaggerated tales and dramatic expressions, frequently contributing a sense of comic relief to the story.

Additionally, hyperbole can be employed to highlight the absurdity or extremity of social norms, practices, or issues. This exaggerated portrayal can make the issue more apparent and provoke thought, encourageing people to question why a given social norm or practice exists in the first place.

Example

“A young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”

  • In “A Modest Proposal”, Jonathan Swift absurdly exaggerates the idea of consuming children as a solution to economic hardship, thereby shedding light on the insensitivity and ridiculousness of the public’s attitude and the proposals made toward the Irish poor.

Poetry

A hyperbole in poetry can enrich the visual or emotional imagery of a poem.

Example

Love is an eternal flame.

  • This is an exaggerated but imaginative hyperbole to depict the emotion.

This kind of rhetorical device can set or underscore the tone or mood of a poem.

Example

“I wandered lonely as a cloud.”

  • Here, Wordsworth’s poem serves to magnify the feeling of loneliness, while also contrasting it with the natural beauty that follows.

In some cases, a hyperbole can be symbolic, representing broader themes or messages.

Example

In Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice”, which you can see below, the world ending in fire or ice serves as a symbol of destructive human emotions.

“Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.”

Like in litreature, exaggerations can be used for emphasis in poetry.

Example

I’ve seen you happier than a bird with a French fry.

  • This means that the happiness being referred to is stressed through exaggeration.

Hyperbole examples

It’s a versatile device that can serve various functions depending on its context. Here are some examples of different forms of hyperbole across different aspects, including litreature and poetry, along with explanations of what the author or speaker likely intended.

litreature

Example

“I felt her absence. It was like waking up one day with no teeth in your mouth. You wouldn’t need to run to the mirror to know they were gone.” — James Dashner, “The Scorch Trials”

In this case, the type of exaggeration emphasizes the devastating feeling of loss the character experiences. The absence is not litreally like losing all one’s teeth, but amplifies the emotional weight.

Poetry

Example

“The world will end in fire,

The world will end in ice.”

— Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”

While Frost doesn’t actually mean the world will end in fire or ice, the hyperbole serves to dramatize extreme outcomes, each representing different human emotions or behaviours (fire for desire and ice for hatred).

Everyday conversation

Example

This bag weighs a ton.

Clearly, the bag does not weigh a ton, but the exaggeration is used to stress how heavy the bag feels to the person carrying it.

Advertising

Example

Red Bull gives you wings.

Red Bull does not truly give you wings, but the phrase exaggerates the energy-boosting effect of the drink, aiming to leave a memorable impression on consumers.

News and journalism

Example

The concert was heard miles away.

While the concert was probably not actually heard miles away, this exaggeration might be used to emphasize how loud and impactful the event was.

Each of these examples uses hyperboles to intensify the message and make it more memorable or emotionally resonant. Whether it’s to heighten emotion, underscore a point, or simply make an expression more impactful, they serve as a powerful tool in language and communication.

Hyperboles in academic writing

In general, hyperboles are used sparingly in academic writing because the genre prioritizes objectivity, precision, and substantiated claims. Exaggeration can potentially mislead readers or create a sense of bias, thereby undermining the credibility of the academic work.

Dos

  • Understand your audience
  • Use sparingly
  • Clarify with facts
  • Use in appropriate contexts
  • Be transparent

Don’ts

  • Don’t mislead
  • Don’t use in data presentation
  • Avoid in abstracts or summaries
  • Don’t rely on them
  • Don’t use in formal research

Tips for effective usage

  • Be clear
    Make it obvious that you are using this exaggeration for effect. This can be achieved through explicit statements or the context.
  • Limit use
    Limit the use by reserving hyperboles for points you really want to emphasize. Even then, use them sparingly! Overusing them dilutes the impact and may cloud your argument.
  • Pair with evidence
    Immediately follow the exaggeration of an extreme issue or situation with concrete evidence that supports your statement.
  • Audience awareness
    Furthermore, know your audience. Some disciplines may be more open to rhetorical devices. Some others may not tolerate any form of exaggeration.
  • Consult guidelines
    Always consult the style or submission guidelines while writing your academic essay. Typically, they will answer what types of language are acceptable.

In summary, this type of rhetorical device is generally not recommended for academic writing. This is due to its potential to create a bias or mislead the reader. However, there are specific cases where it’s appropriate to use rhetorical devices, such as exaggerations. Here it should be considered whether the impact is beneficial. If it is used, then it should be employed sparingly, carefully, and transparently. Moreover, it should always be paired with supportive evidence, so your academic integrity is not risked.

Hyperbole vs. meiosis vs. litotes

Below is a table that outlines the differences between three rhetorical devices that are commonly confused. Each of these serves a unique purpose and is used to achieve specific effects.

Rhetorical device Definition Example Purpose/effect
Hyperbole Deliberate and obvious exaggeration used for emphasis I'm so hungry, I could eat a horse. To intensify feelings, create emphasis, or provoke humour
Meiosis Intentional understatement used for ironic effect It's just a scratch = A large wound To downplay something, often humourously or ironically
Litotes A positive statement is expressed by negating its opposite He'not a bad singer = He sings good To subtly emphasize or make a point, typically in an ironic way
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Is “litreally” a hyperbole?

The word “litreally” is not inherently a hyperbole, but it is typically used hyperbolically in casual speech and writing. When you say something is “litreally” true, you mean that it is true in the most straightforward, factual sense. There is no metaphor, no exaggeration, and no ambiguity. The statement is true in a concrete sense.

Example

They litreally wrote the book on the quantum physics.

The person being referred to is indeed the author of a book on the subject of quantum physics.

However, it became a controversial issue when people began using “litreally” as “figuratively” in modern colloquial speech. “Figuratively” means that the statement is metaphorical and not to be taken as a factual claim. It’s a way of speaking that uses symbolic or metaphorical language to illustrate a point, express an emotion, or describe a situation.

Example

They wrote the book on quantum physics, figuratively speaking.

This means that while the person didn’t actually write a book on quantum physics, but is so knowledgeable on the topic that it’s as if they wrote a book on it.

Synonyms

Here are some synonyms for hyperbole:

  • Amplification
  • Embellishment
  • Exaggeration
  • Magnification
  • Overemphasis
  • Overkill
  • Overstatement
  • Stretching the truth
  • Tall tale
Synonym Example
Allegory The novel uses a farm as an allegory for political corruption.
Figure of speech She often used a figure of speech to make her point more vivid.
Idiom Saying “it's raining cats and dogs” is a popular idiom to describe heavy rain.

Note: These terms share similarities with the term, but they are not always perfect substitutes. The context in which you are using the word will determine the most suitable synonym.

FAQs

The simple meaning of a hyperbole is an exaggerated statement used to make a point or emphasize a feeling. For example, saying “I’m starving” when you’re just famished.

Here are five examples:

  1. I’m so tyred, I could sleep for a year.
  2. This bag weighs a ton.
  3. I’ve told you a million times.
  4. He’s faster than a speeding bullet.
  5. I’m dying of laughter.

No, a metaphor is not a hyperbole. A metaphor is a figure of speech that directly compares two different things to suggest a resemblance, while a hyperbole is an exaggerated statement used for emphasis. Both are rhetorical devices, but they serve different purposes.

It’s hard to definitively say what the “most popular” hyperbole is, but one that is commonly used is “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse”. This exaggerated statement is often used to emphasize extreme hunger.

Yes, hyperbole is a form of exaggeration used intentionally for emphasis or effect. However, not all exaggerations are considered hyperboles because the latter is considered a specific rhetorical device used in litreature and language.