British Understatement

Posted on January 6, 2016

By Honami Matsutani

As you become ‘quite good’ with your English language, you might have noticed this thing called understatement which is inherent to the British culture and can baffle us foreigners, apparently even including English speaking Americans and Australians.

My opening line above is an example with a touch of somewhat implied sarcasm. If a native British person says “Oh, your idea is quite good.” then a non-English speaking foreigner might be very pleased with the praise. But is it praise? Of course it may depend on the context and the intonation used by the person to some extent, but the true feeling can range from “surprisingly good” at the best to “somewhat disappointing” at the low end.

A few other examples of understatements (particularly in business situations where misunderstanding could have devastating effect) include:-

“That’s very interesting” meaning “That is clearly nonsense”
“That is a very brave proposal” meaning “You are insane”
“With the greatest respect” meaning “You are an idiot”
“I only have a few minor comments” meaning “Please rewrite this completely”

Some might say these are exaggerated interpretations to make fun of the British, but there is a lot of truth in them. So please be aware and watch out.

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