Thursday, May 26, 2011


by Connye Griffin for My Writing and Editing Coach

A physical therapist has been teaching me how to strengthen my lower back. One of her little jokes is the directive to repeat an exercise “3 million times.” When she announced this impossible number, a fellow sufferer asked if I was going to take that lying down. I said, “Yes, I recognize hyperbole when I hear it.” So do you, but do you make intentional use of it for effect when writing?

Andrew Marvell does in his naughty poem, “To His Coy Mistress.”

. . I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

Here, the fella trying to seduce the lady swears that he would woo her as long as it takes, in fact as long as the period between ten years before Noah’s rainy days and the day when all Jews have converted to Christianity--if only he had that much time. Since he does not, he proposes that the lady forsake her silly virtue and enjoy her youth.

Hyperbole, then, as you may infer from the example, is the intentional use of exaggeration to emphasize words and/or ideas.

We exaggerate all the time. It adds flair to our mundane conversations. For example:

• I’ll die if my parents don’t give me a car on my sixteenth birthday!
• That car runs at the speed of light.
• I’m so hungry I could eat everything on the menu.
• I’ll never ask for another thing if you’ll buy that dress for me.
• I’ll never sin again if only You’ll save me this time.

Authors use hyperbole to make points and enrich passages. Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized the power of the democratic ideal when, in “The Concord Hymn,” he wrote:

Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The world did not actually “hear” the first shots fired at Lexington and Concord, but the actions there reverberated in Europe and shaped the future.

Another example of hyperbole comes from the story about Babe, the Blue Ox:

“Well now, one winter it was so cold that all the geese flew backward and all the fish moved south and even the snow turned blue. Late at night, it got so frigid that all spoken words froze solid afore they could be heard. People had to wait until sunup to find out what folks were talking about the night before.”

The author conveys just how unimaginably cold that winter was by using exaggeration well. His hyperbolic examples are unusual and trigger our imaginations. That is the goal of hyperbole as William Safire explains very well:

"The trick to effective hyperbole is to give an original twist to obviously fanciful overstatement. 'I'd walk a million miles for one of your smiles' would no longer impress Mammy, but Raymond Chandler's 'She was blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole through a stained-glass window' still has that crisp crunch of freshness" (How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar. W.W. Norton, 1990).

Reading Challenge:

Read “To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell, “As I Walked Out One Evening” and “Law Like Love” by W. H. Auden, “Babe the Blue Ox,” and Safire’s How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar. In each, you will find hyperbole used well.

Writing Challenge

Write a fresh, unusual hyperbole to describe heart break, hunger, love, and fear.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Hyperbole complements imagery, and readers often compliment writers when they use hyperbole.

The two words above in bold font sound the same, but they have very different meanings as the compound sentences above prove. Nevertheless, these are commonly confused so what follows is a brief review.

In elementary school, your art teacher (and I hope your school supports arts instruction!) taught you about complementary colors, opposites on the color wheel. Red and green are opposites and complementary. Used wisely, especially during the holiday season, they are pleasing. So one can deduce that complementary means two things that go together.

Complementary also means to complete. For example, many people believe that the most successful marriages endure because the individuals complement each other. If he is a procrastinator, she is an organizer. If he is an idealist, she is a realist. If one spends too much money, the other saves.

Many also believe that successful marriages endure because the partners compliment each other often. He notices if she changes her hair and compliments her, saying “I love the new style!” She praises his driving skills even when he refuses to ask for directions.

As you have probably guessed, compliment spelled with an I means to admire or praise.