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One of the meanings of くらい is 'to the extent', and is often used in hyperbole (exaggerated claims) such as:

今日はもう一生走りたくないくらい走った。 Today, I ran so much that I don't want to run again in my whole life.

Clearly, this is an exaggeration, and "I don't want to run again in my whole life" is not meant to be taken literally.

Indeed, an explanation for this use of くらい given in Shin Kanzen Master is:

To the extent that 〜, in which 〜 is an example (emphasising extent) of what could have, but did not actually, happen.

However, くらい seems to be frequently used in the same way in literal sentences, such as:

この川は泳げるくらい深い。 This river is deep enough to swim in.

Often it will be clear from the meaning whether a literal interpretation is called for or not.

However, there are some sentences where it is not clear (to me at least) whether they are to be understood literally, or to be taken as hyperbole. An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese gives these sentences for example:

アメリカにずっと住んでいるので、英語の方が日本語より上手なくらいです。He has lived in America so long that his English is (almost) better than his Japanese.

ごちそうがたくさんあって、全部食べられないくらいでした。 There was so much food that we almost could not eat it all.

If I take the first sentence literally, then it implies his English is better than his Japanese, and the word 'almost' in the translation is incorrect. Or, if I assume this is an exaggeration, then whilst his English is good, his Japanese is still better, and using 'almost' would be appropriate. But how am I to know which is the correct interpretation? Both interpretations would be plausible in this situation, I think. But to me, there is a significant difference between the two meanings.

Likewise, for the second sentence, did we manage to eat all the food or not? I assume the answer is we did, given the translation with 'almost'. But why must I interpret it this way?

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FYI we have a classic answer to The difference between くらい and ほど in hyperbole on this site, but — simply no, there is no way to decide whether the statement before くらい is a hyperbole or not from grammatical clues. After all, they are just pieces of grammar to tell facts, and the hyperbolic usage is only a rhetorical technique built upon them, as in most other languages.

So, you can only judge if it is hyperbole based on whether what they say is unrealistic from the context at that moment (which also includes their face, tone, situation...) or not. Although the examples you cited are indeed what people would typically say for humor or compliment, there is still no decisive marker to really know if they are serious.

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  • Thanks. So, given a sentence like アメリカにずっと住んでいるので、英語の方が日本語より上手なくらいです, can it be translated into English encompassing both interpretations, or must we choose between taking it literally ("his English is better than his Japanese") or as hyperbole ("his English is almost better than his Japanese"), thereby losing some aspect of its meaning in translation? I feel maybe the confusion arises because there's no way to convey the ambiguity of the Japanese sentence in English. Unfortunately, my Japanese isn't advanced enough yet to fully grasp its nuances without relying on English for explanation.
    – 猫会飞
    May 5 at 18:49
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    @猫会飞 Can't "His English is better than his Japanese" be literal or hyperbolic based on context as well?
    – Leebo
    May 5 at 23:38
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    @猫会飞 I'm not sure I understand your comment completely, but in my words, the expression is inherently ambiguous on this point, not that you can find a "hyperbole switch" somewhere which always triggers hyperbole reading or literal reading. May 6 at 4:50
  • @broccoliforest Right. So I guess the explanation by Shin Kanzen Master is misleading when it says くらい expresses "the extent that 〜, in which 〜 is an example (emphasising extent) of what could have, but did not actually, happen", when in fact, it could well have happened - we cannot know for sure in the absence of further context. And the use of "almost" in the two sentences from An Integrated Approach to Intermediate Japanese is also misleading, because it is adding an interpretation to the English sentence which is not mandated by the original Japanese. Would you agree with this? Thank you.
    – 猫会飞
    May 6 at 15:13
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    @猫会飞 I'm not very familiar with English connotation either, but it can be said the "almost" is an overly restrictive reading, unless English needs to choose either of literal or hyperbolic reading in that context. May 8 at 6:01

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