Whether you realize it or not, there’s a 10,000% chance you use hyperboles every day. I’m not even joking when I say you would literally die if you couldn’t use hyperboles. I don’t know how anyone could possibly manage to get through the day without using a million hyperboles!
Okay, that’s enough. If you weren’t aware, all of those sentences contained a hyperbole, which is defined as an exaggeration for effect. Speaking or writing hyperbolically can be very effective, but it can also be overdone very, very easily, as it was in the first paragraph. We’re going to dive into some appropriate uses and guidelines for hyperboles as writing devices.
Literally, the word “hyperbole” comes from a Greek phrase meaning to reach or cast beyond. In this case, the word “literally” was used appropriately, but more on that later. Hyperboles should be obviously absurd exaggerations used for dramatic effect. And you really probably do use them frequently every day. Every time you say: “I have a million things to do today,” or “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened,” you’re speaking hyperbolically.
Where to Be Careful
The main problem with using hyperbole as a writing device is that it makes the reader inclined to distrust the narrator. It’s one thing to say, “This guy’s had a thousand girlfriends” in conversation. It’s quite another to put that on paper for your readers. Unless it’s clear that the sentiment is coming from a fictional character, it can sow suspicion and confusion.
In recent years, “literally” has snuck into our spoken vocabulary in a way that’s incredibly frustrating to grammar nerds and linguistics alike. It’s very common to hear a teenager say something along the lines of “I literally can’t,” or “I literally couldn’t eat another bite,” or “After that, I was literally dead.” Since literally means “adhering to fact” this sort of usage is inherently or “literally” incorrect.
Using “literally” as a modifier to describe something hyperbolically in speech is problematic at best. In writing, it’s a poor choice and conveys the opposite of what you’re probably trying to say. You may think you’re writing hyperbolically by using “literally,” but there’s a good chance you’re coming off more ignorant than you would like.
Another hyperbolic trap that’s easy to fall into is using modifiers for absolute terms. For example, you can’t be “totally dead,” you’re either dead or you’re not! You can’t be “slightly unique” or “highly unique.” You’re either unique or you’re not.
Your best bet in this area is to choose words that are considered “gradable” adverbs or use the adverbs as they are. Don’t say “I’m utterly exhausted,” say “I’m exhausted” or “I’m very tired.” “Tired” is gradable; “exhausted” is absolute.
Hyperboles can be useful in writing, but they can easily be over-used or misused. To avoid this, choose gradable adjectives with effective modifiers, or avoid combining modifiers with absolute adjectives. If you keep these rules in mind and ingrain them into your speech and writing, when you choose to use hyperbole, it will be all the more effective.