Softening life's blows with a little understatement

When I was young, my family bought groceries at a little corner shop owned, appropriately, by Mr Corner.

When I was young, my family bought groceries at a little corner shop owned, appropriately, by Mr Corner. He was a genial but direct man, and the sign on the wall behind his counter read: "Please do not ask for credit as a refusal often offends." The wording was not his own. Similar signs could be found in many shops. But Mr Corner recognised the value of understatement, the art of making harsh facts more palatable without placing their intended meaning in any doubt.

Half a century later, variations of such warnings to impecunious would-be customers can still be seen on retail premises. They have more to do with civility than concession. Mr Corner was firm enough; he was also courteous and restrained, and the importance of these qualities should not be underestimated. Wise old newspapermen used to advise young recruits to avoid trying to seem clever by composing withering reviews of amateur dramatic society productions. One friend recalls an editor saying the glance of the rapier was more effective than the slash of the sword. Far better, applying this theory, to say an individual's performance "demonstrated the difficulties of the role" than to suggest it "did for acting what Hitler did for peace and diplomacy".

I concede, in passing, that some readers will wonder what entitles a cub reporter to assess dramatic productions in any case. The question would take a column of its own to explore, though my own local newspaper was once rebuked for sending a journalist with expert knowledge to an opening night. When her unenthusiastic review appeared, she was accused of being motivated by artistic rivalry. These days, when media coverage of the arts is much more brash and occasionally brutal, her criticisms of the play would probably seem mild.

But it is also worth remembering that understatement can be a curse as well as a soothing agent. However gently an employee is told he is being "let go", he knows he is being fired all the same; the sense of grievance may even be heightened by the element of choice falsely implied by the word "let". Equally, the frustrations of travellers are not greatly eased by road signs stating "delays possible" instead of the more honest "delays a racing certainty - and expect them to be long". In France, rail passengers are primly notified of a mouvement social when the staff are, in fact, on strike and intent on making movement, social or otherwise, as hard as possible.

At the football stadium, the proper definition of "restricted view" from certain seats may well be that spectators should not expect to see the goalmouth, defeating the object of attending a game. A wayward uncle said to be "in a little trouble with the law" could turn out to be facing a long stretch for fraud. Schoolboys of earlier generations drew little comfort from jolly references to "six of the best" to describe painful encounters in the headmaster's study.

And civilians caught up in warfare die just as surely when the effects of military action are called "collateral damage" as they would if generals admitted: "We went for our target regardless of how many women and children got in the way." Each of my examples represents understatement in one form or another. It is easy to argue that the undiluted truth would often be preferable. But if news must sometimes, by definition, be unwelcome, it is also a mark of human decency and not cowardice to adopt language designed to soften the blow.

Old Mr Corner was not insensitive to the problems of people who found themselves short of money. He just wanted it understood that he could not treat shopkeeping as a charitable activity, but he was far too polite and considerate to put up sign with the blunter message: "No money? Clear off." Colin Randall is a contributing editor to The National and may be contacted at