What is hyperbole?

What is hyperbole?

by Laura Jones

Updated July 20, 2022

Hyperbole is an exaggerated statement that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. It has been used in English forever to jazz up speeches, sell products and make literature that bit more interesting. In this article, we’ll look at a definition and examples of hyperbole and help you learn when to use it. 

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How do you pronounce hyperbole?

The word hyperbole doesn’t follow normal English pronunciation rules (yes, there are some pronunciation rules in English!). First, it has four syllables, and second, the stress is on the second syllable: hai-PUR-bol-ee /haɪˈpɜː.bəl.i/. It’s also important to note that we don’t use an article (a, an or the) when talking about hyperbole. 

What’s the definition of hyperbole?

Hyperbole is an over-exaggeration so strong that no one will (or should) take what you’re saying literally. It’s often idiomatic and brings up funny or strange images, as in the very common hyperbolic statement: “I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.” You just imagined someone munching on a horse, didn’t you? The person speaking probably doesn’t want to eat a horse at all and certainly wouldn’t be able to manage a whole one; thus, hyperbole. It gets people’s attention and sometimes makes them laugh. 

When is hyperbole used?

You probably see and hear examples of hyperbole every day. And no, that’s not hyperbole. It’s a great technique in advertising as companies exaggerate how good their products are to try to sell more. You’ll often see words like ‘best’ and ‘most’ in adverts to make a product stand out from the competition. And, visually, you’ll see hyperbole all over the place in adverts. Like in this Snickers advert; a chocolate bar will never turn you into an action movie star. 

Hyperbole is also often used in literature to make descriptions more vivid. Joseph Conrad in “Heart of Darkness” writes, “I had to wait in the station for ten days—an eternity.” And Shakespeare, in “Macbeth”, implies that Macbeth’s hands are so covered in blood they could turn the sea red. 

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Can I use hyperbole?

Of course! Using hyperbole makes your speech sound more interesting and can help people engage with you. As we wrote above, hyperbole gets people’s attention, makes descriptions more vivid and can make people laugh. So you can use it when you want to do any of those things. 

It’s not the best idea to use hyperbole in formal, spoken situations or if you’re writing something heavily factual. 

If you’re in the office, for example, you could choose between these two statements: 

To your boss: “Excuse me, I need to sit down. My back hurts.”

To your favorite colleague: “I need to sit down. My back is killing me!”

Or if you’re giving a presentation in a meeting, you might want to stick to facts rather than go with hyperbole: 

In the meeting: “The purchase will cost $2 million.” 

To your favorite colleague: “It’s going to cost an arm and a leg! “

Common hyperbole examples

If you’re looking for an example for hyperbole, look no further than the word ‘literally’. The use of this word seriously gets on some people’s nerves but it’s even entered the Oxford Dictionary with its hyperbolic definition: “used to emphasize a word or phrase, even if it is not actually true in a literal sense” alongside the example sentence: “I literally jumped out of my skin.” Which is, quite clearly, impossible.

Here are some more common examples of hyperbole:

  • I’ve told you a million times!
  • There’s enough food to feed an army!
  • I was so embarrassed, I wanted to die. (Or just, “I died”, “dead” or the skull emoji.)
  • That lesson went on forever.
  • I’ve got a mountain of work. 
  • This bag weighs a ton!
  • He’s got a brain the size of a pea.
  • She’s as old as the hills.

When are you going to use hyperbole?

If you’re learning English, using hyperbole is a great way to make your speech sound more natural. So whether you’re chatting to someone in the gym: “That weighs a ton – be careful!”, complaining to your colleague, “The last meeting went on for an eternity. I need a beer.” or speaking to your teenage child, “Please put your dirty plates in the dishwasher! I’ve asked you a million times!”, hyperbole is an excellent way to express your feelings clearly. 

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Laura is a freelance writer and was an ESL teacher for eight years. She was born in the UK and has lived in Australia and Poland, where she writes blogs for Lingoda about everything from grammar to dating English speakers. She’s definitely better at the first one. She loves travelling and that’s the other major topic that she writes on. Laura likes pilates and cycling, but when she’s feeling lazy she can be found curled up watching Netflix. She’s currently learning Polish, and her battle with that mystifying language has given her huge empathy for anyone struggling to learn English. Find out more about her work in her portfolio.

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