Hyperbole is funny: just think of all those “yo mama” jokes (so ancient and universal that you can find some even in the Bible and in Shakespeare) or Monty Python’s “Four Yorkshiremen” sketch (Reference). Hyperbole is also passionate: it is, quite possibly, the literary device angry young men and new lovers tend to use most frequently. Finally, hyperbole is often the only way one can express the extent of his admiration for one person or the degree of his disapproval for another. Witness all of these functions—and then some—in the 10 sentences we’ve selected and analyzed for you below.
10 Examples of Hyperbole in a Sentence
#1: Cicero, Against Verres V.56.145 (70 BC)
After long lapse of years, the Sicilians saw dwelling in their midst, not a second Dionysius or Phalaris (for that island has produced many a cruel tyrant in years gone by), but a new monster with all the old ferocity once familiar to those regions. For, to my thinking, neither Scylla nor Charybdis were ever such foes as he to the ships that sailed those same narrow seas.
This is one of the examples Quintilian uses in his Institutes of Oratory to illustrate the power of hyperbole (Reference). It is taken from one of Cicero’s speeches against Gaius Verres, a former governor of Sicily with a notoriously bad reputation, during his trial for corruption and extortion. Cicero hyperbolically describes Verres as not merely a “second Dionysius or Phalaris” (both Sicilian tyrants themselves) but as a “monster” even more ferocious than Scylla and Charybdis, two mythical creatures that posed an unavoidable trait to sailors. Needless to add, even Verres’ defense advocate didn’t bother to stand up for his client after this kind of an accusation; really, he didn’t.
#2: John Keats, “A Letter to Fanny Brawne” (July 3, 1819)
I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.
When you are passionately in love with someone, there’s no other way to express your emotions but in an abundance of hyperboles. John Keats uses them so often in his letters to his betrothed Fanny Brawne that scholars haven’t stopped at merely identifying them, but they have also tried categorizing them (reference). For our example, we’ve decided to go with one of his positive hyperbolic intensifications and, arguably, the most beautiful of them all. As you can see, Keats himself comments in the first sentence above that ordinary language is not enough for him to articulate how deeply he is devoted to Fanny. And that’s always a cue for a hyperbole; in this case, one as romantic as any formulated before or since.
#3: Captain William Mattingly, “A Reply to a Truce Offer” (October 13, 1863)
I will fight until Hell freezes over and then fight on the ice.
At about 4:30 AM, on October 13, 1863, a Confederate army of 800 people led by William Lowther Jackson secretly attacked the strategic fort at Bulltown, West Virginia, guarded by Captain William Mattingly and his 400 Union soldiers. After successfully advancing against the fort, and entirely convinced in his own superiority, Jackson sent a flag of truce with a demand to surrender or face annihilation to Mattingly. Mattingly declined; a few hours later, Jackson repeated his offer. This time, even though already wounded in the thigh, Mattingly replied with the words quoted above. “I will fight until Hell freezes over” is hyperbole in itself, awash with dogged willpower; however, the addition “and then fight on the ice” brings both the hyperbole and Mattingly’s determination to a whole other level. Unsurprisingly, after 12 hours of fighting, it was Jackson who had to step back.
#4: Eugene Field, “A Society Note” (1882)
Colonel G.K. Cooper went swimming in the hot water pool at Manitou last Sunday afternoon, and the place was used for a skating rink in the evening.
Eugene Field is now best remembered as the “Children’s Poet,” the author of such tender and beautiful poems as “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” “The Duel,” and “The Little Boy Blue.” However, in his time, he was also a feared journalist, famed for his sarcasm and wit. This is how he described the aloofness of a certain Colonel G.K. Cooper, a local dignitary, on the pages of The Denver Tribune. You have to agree that the sentence depicts Cooper’s coldness in such a hyperbolic manner that it sounds as if taken out of a modern stand-up comedy show or even a roast.
#5: Fred Allen, “A Letter to Kenny Delmar” (1950s)
All the sincerity in Hollywood you could stuff in a flea’s navel and still have room left to conceal eight caraway seeds and an agent’s heart.
Fred Allen was one of the most popular American comedians during the Golden Age of the Radio. The sentence above—taken from a now-lost letter—is an excellent example of how skillfully he could build a hyperbole upon hyperbole to make absurdist claims which, nevertheless, reveal something essentially true. There is also a slight allusion here to Matthew 13:32 where Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds; apparently, you can put eight of them in the navel of a flea—in addition to “all the sincerity in Hollywood” and “an agent’s heart.”
#6: John Kennedy, “Remarks at a Dinner Honoring Nobel Prize of the Western Hemisphere” (April 29, 1962)
I think this is the most extraordinary collection of human talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House—with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.
“There is in all men a natural propensity to magnify,” claims Quintilian, and it seems that this is especially true in cases when one wants to say how exceptional or admirable another human being is. At an April 29, 1962 dinner honoring 49 Nobel Prize winners of the Western hemisphere, then-US President John F. Kennedy greeted his distinguished guests with the remark above. There is already an exaggeration in the first part of Kennedy’s statement (made subtler by the use of “I think”), but it is the ironical twist in the second sentence which makes this such a quotable and unforgettable hyperbole.
#7: Mary McCarthy, “An Interview on the Dick Cavett Show” (October 18, 1979)
Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’
Mary McCarthy was a popular American female author of the war- and post-war period; and so was Lillian Hellman. However, the former couldn’t stand the latter, thinking that Hellman was not only “tremendously overrated” writer, but also—and this part bothered her the most—“a dishonest writer.” How dishonest? Well, apparently so much that she had to further inflate the numbed-down conventional exaggeration (“every word she writes is a lie”) with the caustically funny: “including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” Mary McCarthy’s memorable one-liner shows, yet again, how hyperbole is oftentimes a companion of wit.
#8: William Safire, “The Fumblerules of Writing” (The New York Times, November 4, 1979)
If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.
The above is one of the numerous so-called “fumblerules of writing” compiled by William Safire for the November 4, 1979 issue of The New York Times (specifically, for the “On Language” column). In the introduction, Safire describes these “never-say-neverisms” as “perverse rules of grammar,” because, as is clear from the example, each of them is written in a way which is a blatant violation of the rule it states. Perhaps his point is that, well, rules are meant to be broken; you get bonus points if you can make people laugh while doing it.
#9: Katie Wales, A Dictionary of Stylistics (1989)
Hyperbole is often popularly assumed to distinguish female from male speech… But there is no firm evidence that women exaggerate more than men do. It’s an absolutely preposterous claim.
Ever since Samuel Johnson made fun of his own job by defining the word “lexicographer” in his monumental Dictionary of the English Language as “a harmless drudge,” many compilers of glossaries have tried replicating the act, planting quite a few hilarious Easter eggs in their, otherwise, exhaustingly unbiased works. It is always great when one happens upon such an example in these much-necessary compendiums of knowledge. The above sentence, for instance, is taken from the entry for “hyperbole” in Longman’s Dictionary of Stylistics. The funny thing about it is the enigmatic incongruity between the neutral style of the first two sentences and the personal tone of the third one. Namely, after pointing out matter-of-factly that “there is no firm evidence that women exaggerate more than men do,” the author concludes the paragraph with an exaggeration utterly unusual for a dictionary: “It’s an absolutely preposterous claim.” But the author of the book is a woman—and that makes this hyperbole just about outrageously funny.
#10: Robert A. Harris, Writing with Clarity and Style (2003)
Nevertheless, it can still be an effective tool of writing, if used carefully. In fact, hyperbole is the most important, most powerful, most useful rhetorical device ever invented, a billion times more impactful than any other device, so you absolutely must learn and use it all the time or your writing will be a futile exercise in tragic banality, mocked and scorned by every reader on the planet, to put it mildly.
Here’s another funny example similar in manner and tone to the previous two—though out-hyperbolizing both. After pointing out that “we are exposed to constant barrage of hyperbole and have become numb toward much of it,” Robert Harris suddenly makes the strangest of claims in his handbook Writing with Clarity and Style; namely, that hyperbole is “the most important, most powerful, most useful rhetorical device ever invented.” It is only after the obligatory second of confusion and bewilderment—”what about metaphor or simile?”—that a reader can realize that Harris is merely pulling his/her leg, using hyperbole after hyperbole to illustrate his previous point; the real icing on the comical cake, however, must be the lovely four-word appendage: “to put it mildly.”