Have You Ever?

Your sister just got back from school. “How was your day?” you ask. “It was the worst day of my life,” she replies glumly. “I had to lug my cello with me and it weighs a ton! By the time the school bell rang, you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. Not to mention I got a C on my Spanish exam. Dad’s going to kill me when he gets back from work.”

Here’s Why

When your sister told you about her day, she made a lot of overstatements. A cello doesn’t really weigh a ton, she’d probably be able to keep her balance if poked by a feather, and while your father may be upset, he isn’t going to kill your sister. These overstatements, or hyperboles, help convey the distress your sister is feeling.

Hyperbole

A hyperbole is a type of rhetorical device consisting of an exaggerated statement. It’s not supposed to be taken literally. Instead, this figure of speech is used to show strong emotions or produce a vivid image to make a lasting impression on the audience.

The History

The word “hyperbole” comes from a Latin word of the same spelling, which in turn was derived from the Greek word huperbolē. It literally translates to “throwing beyond” but was used more broadly to mean “an exaggeration.” The word “hyperbole” was first documented being used in the early 1500s, but even without a proper term for it, humans have likely been exaggerating their claims since the beginning of communication.

So What

Hyperboles are used everywhere, everyday. Any time people are communicating with one another, on the phone, in an email, or over the Internet, hyperboles can be found. Poetry is full of them. Romantic poets are especially guilty of them when expressing their adoration to their loved ones. Take this excerpt of Robert Burns’ “A Red, Red, Rose” for example: “Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear, / And the rocks melt wi’ the sun; / I will love thee still, my dear / While the sands o’ life shall run.” However, hyperboles can also be used humorously, like in Shell Silverstein’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out”: “The garbage rolled on down the halls, / It raised the roof, it broke the walls… The garbage reached across the state, / From New York to the Golden Gate.” They can even be used persuasively in advertising campaigns.

While hyperboles can sometimes obscure the fine details and facts of a situation, they can be used to powerfully make a point. You could say, “I waited thirty minutes for what was advertised as a five-minute wait. It was very annoying.” Or you could say instead, “I waited for an eternity.” As a rhetorical device, exaggerations can paint a vivid picture full of emotion. Overstatements tend to be dramatic, but they’re great for emphasizing a point. If you say, “I waited an eternity”, your audience knows you’re extremely annoyed at the situation without you even having to say so. 

Furthermore, a hyperbole can usually be clearly spotted because the statement makes very little or no sense at all if taken literally. You couldn’t have waited an eternity in line – if you did, you wouldn’t be talking about it now! When a hyperbole is used correctly, the speaker emphasizes their point effectively and gives their listener added information they wouldn’t otherwise have, making hyperboles a persuasive rhetorical device.

    Learn More

    1. Callister, Mark A. Ph.D. & Lesa A. Stern Ph.D. “The Role of Visual Hyperbole in Advertising Effectiveness”. Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, vol 29, issue 2, 2007, pp 1-14. doi:10.1080/10641734.2007.10505212
    2. Claridge, Claudia. Hyperbole in English: A Corpus-based Study of Exaggeration. Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-521-76635-7.
    3. Colston, L. Herbert and Shauna B. Keller. “You’ll Never Believe This: Irony and Hyperbole in Expressing Surprise”. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, vol 27, issue 4, July 19989, pp 499-513. doi: 10.1023/A:1023229304509.
    4. McCarthy, Michael and Ronald Carter. “‘There’s millions of them’: hyperbole in everyday conversation”. Journal of Pragmatics, vol 36, issue 2, February 2004, pp 149-184. doi: 10.1016/S0378-2166(03)00116-4.
    5. Varga, Donna. “Hyperbole and Humor in Children’s Language Play”. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, vol 14, issue 2, 200, pp 142-151. doi: 10.1080/02568540009594759

    Think Further

    1. Can you think of a common hyperbole you’ve recently used?
    2. Open a book you’ve recently read. How many hyperboles can you spot in it?
    3. When do you tend to use or see hyperboles used in your daily life?

    Teacher Resources

    Download Lesson Plan
    Download Worksheet