25 November 2011

Greatest Insight Ever—A New Age of Overstatement?

Back in 2008 I quoted Adam Gopnik writing in the New Yorker about an early-20th-century shift in prose style:

Writers like Shaw and Chesterton depended on a kind of comic hyperbole: every statement is an overstatement, and understood as such by readers. The new style prized understatement, to be filled in by the reader. What had seemed charming and obviously theatrical twenty years before now could sound like puff and noise. Human nature didn’t change in 1910, but English writing did.
Have we entered another age of overstatement? Increasingly common phrases like “Best [fill in the blank with something not all that special] ever!” and “[Rather innocuous annoyance] must die!” suggest that we have. Once again, writers expect readers to understand that they’re not being literal. Which of course brings us to the modern, overstating use of “literal.”

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