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Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Tone Handbook » Usage » Academic Tone » Usage » Hyperboles






Rhetorical Exaggeration


Absolutes and Qualifiers

Types of Mitigated Hyperbole

Extreme Mediocrity •

Comparative Absolutes •

Degrees of Superlative •



Absolutely Incredible!: Hyperboles Defined

An hyperbole is an exaggeration. The word derives from the Greek hyperballein, meaning "to overshoot." We use the prefix "hyper-" in many other words in English, but the root "ballein"—to cast or throw—may be less recognizable in words such as "ballistic" or (believe it or not) "diabolical"—a "diablo" or devil being one who is "cast out". Hyperboles are mostly rhetorical: they're employed for persuasive, sometimes dramatic, effect. A perfect example of an hyperbole is the phrase "a perfect example," one of the most overused hyperboles in college writing. In the majority of cases, students who use this phrase have mistaken an "apt" example for a "perfect" example: their point isn't really to illustrate perfection, but, rather, to demonstrate they've been thoughtful enough about their choice of example. In most cases, a better strategy is to introduce the example as relevant, compelling, significant, revealing, thought-provoking, important, unusual, delightful, or even amusing. Absolutes like "perfect" are just bombast.

Hyperbole is a frequent habit among native English-speakers. It's not exclusively a U.S. phenomenon, but Americans do have a bit of a reputation for it. Why? Difficult to say. Perhaps, in our day-to-day lives of school and work, our competitive culture values performance over other qualities and, feeling pressured to be best, we grow used to expressing ourselves in superlatives and absolutes. Perhaps we're influenced by the inescapable language of advertising all around us, and, like ad men who use hyperboles to excite consumers about their products, we use more linguistic glitter and rhinestones to entice our audience to ideas that aren't exciting enough to sell themselves.

Hyperbole is common to figurative descriptions (e.g., "To discover that he could actually cook was nothing short of a divine revelation"), figurative comparisons (e.g., "a headache like a million ice picks chipping away at her head"), and common Cliches (e.g., "Last night it rained cats and dogs"). Descriptive and narrative writing sometimes depends on hyperbole every now and again to convey a sense of character in the narrator--which sometimes can cause the narrator to be unreliable.

In formal and academic writing, however, people who rely on hyperbole risk not being taken seriously. Firstly, hyperbole too often takes the form of a Cliche, which is a problem in its own right because a cliche dodges the responsibility of precise language and can exclude readers not familiar with the cultural context of the expression. Secondly, hyperbole indicates a lack of objectivity in one's tone. Although academic prose is rarely objective in content, it nonetheless strives to be objective in its voice. Hyperboles express a false sense of excitement or an exaggerated sense of intensity. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, hyperbole makes the writer incredible--literally. (I use both words here in their literal meaning, too). The flagrant abandonment of an objective voice with the use of hyperbole makes the writer suspicious insofar as she cannot be trusted to be making reasonable and reliable claims. As a result, her overall credibility is damaged. (Think of job applicant who boasts having published in a variety of journals, which you later discover to be personal ads in the back pages of the local Penny Saver. What happens to his credibility afterward?)

The onus is upon the writer of academic prose, then, to avoid hyperbole in favor of accurate, precise and reasonable language. This perhaps sounds as though it will lead to flat, soulless prose. However, creativity and style may yet prevail in the writer's turning of a phrase if the intention is to elicit a measured emotional response rather than a highly excited one; ultimately, the rhetorical effect of this will be to augment the intellectual response.

It's not always about hyperbolic diction, though. You know that person who thinks she's winning an argument because she's louder than anybody else? Or, THAT PERSON ON THE FORUMS WHO ALWAYS USES CAPITAL LETTERS TO MAKE HIS POSTS STAND OUT? Similarly, writers who needlessly use exclamation points and italics for emphasis also pour too much ketchup on their foui gras. Seasoned academic prose writers know how to use an exclamation with rhetorically appropriate dramatic effect, but unskilled writers will often use the exclamation and emphasis to melodramatic effect—a cheap ploy to arouse the emotional involvement of the reader. For this reason alone, exclamatory sentences rarely have a place in academic writing.

Here is a list of words and phrases commonly used with hyperbolic diction.

(Note: Among these you'll find many Cliches as well.)
ad nauseam
against all odds
all the time
barrage of questions, a
bewildering array of, a
beyond a shadow of a doubt
beyond belief
could not fathom it
couldn't care less
did everything I could
each and every time
endless supply of, an
entirely too good
everything they can (could)
freaking out
give a hundred and ten percent
going crazy
greatly overrated
hysterically funny
in actual reality
infinitely (infinitesimally)
in an instant
in his (her;their) entire life
in the entire world
inconceivable truth, the
just about
leaving no stone unturned
myriad of, a
needless to say
no time to spare (to lose)
no way, shape or form
not in a million years
off the scale (map)
only time, the
plied with
since the beginning of time
staggering number of
thousand times over
till the ends of the Earth
tons of (style; money; experience; etc.)
undeniable truth of the matter, the
under no circumstances
without a doubt
without exception

Oxymorons and Mitigated Hyperboles

Rhetorical Exaggeration

Many hyperboles are the result of overzealous rhetorical attempts to impress audiences:

The problem of hyperbole in college writing continues to keep getting more and more progressively intensified.

Sometimes this leads to the travesty of double- and triple-negatives we were warned about in grammar school:

There's no power on Earth that will never, ever not make me love you.

Does the statement above pledge eternal love or not? Hard to say. Some languages allow double- and triple-negatives as a way to express degree of intensity, kinda sorta in the same way English speakers use "really," "very," "really very," "much much more," or "very very...."


Certain combinations of words, though, seem contradictory when you look at them at face value, yet, when they are used in context, they seem to make sense as everyday expressions or idioms. These are called "oxymorons." The word "oxymoron" derives from the Greek oxymōros, meaning "pointedly dull" ("dull" as in "dull-witted" or "foolish," and, yes, it is, in fact, related to the word "moron"). You've probably heard and used oxymorons in your own conversations, because they abound in popular culture. Who hasn't at one time or another said, "That's pretty ugly" or "He's so terribly nice." Oxymorons abound in the popular American vernacular. For example:

act naturally
long shorts
approximately 4:37 p. m.
a medium-large
awfully good
mega-low prices
barely clothed
mid-season finale (my personal favorite)
basic mixture
mini supreme
certain jeu ne sais quois
new old stock
certainly vague
old news
deafening silence
original copy
discovered missing
plastic glassware (tin silverware)
dull shine
practically useless
extremely mediocre
pretty ugly
fairly unjust
same difference
freezer burn
simply too complex
increasingly diminished returns
slightly obese
incredible true story
a specific generalization
jumbo shrimp
standing down
a little large
super sub-sandwich
live recording
virtual reality

Some oxymorons, however, stand apart in that they contain hyperboles tempered, or "mitigated," by contradictory words or qualifiers. This is done to own up to the fact that an exaggeration is occurring. People worry that others won't take them seriously unless they make extreme claims. ("How was your day?" "Fantastic!") However, they also worry that extreme claims will seem unreliable, so they admit to the exaggeration by "toning down" what's improbable or not-so-subtle ("How was your day?' "Pretty close to fantastic"). To understand mitigated hyperboles, just be aware that the user is motivated to exaggerate, but wants to get caught in the lie of exaggeration. This contradiction takes the form of an oxymoron, which is why something can be, both, "trumped up" and "toned down" at the same time.

Absolutes and Qualifiers

Absolutes and qualifiers are integral to the logic of our claims. Consider, for instance, this statement from a recent insurance advertisement: "Everything can't cost a nickel." Taken for its literal meaning, the claim states that nowhere at any time can something ever cost five cents. If I want, I can sell these words of advice to you right now for a nickel (albeit a wooden nickel), so the claim is patently untrue. The absolute, "Everything," needs a qualifier to limit it. Had the ad writer moved the qualifier "not" away from the word "can" and put it in front of "Everything," the claim would then become true: "Not everything can cost a nickel." (You might also recognize this problem as a misplaced modifier.)

Some words shouldn't be paired with qualifiers because they're all-or-nothing propositions. They're used to suggest an extreme condition, so using a qualifier makes them insincere. Can anyone be somewhat pregnant? Slightly homicidal? Kind of alive? How committed are you if you're “almost in love”? How serious is “a little bit annihilated”? How impressive is “close to epic”? What's a “mini disaster”? Does "I almost lost a ton of weight" have any meaning for a serious dieter? All of these sound like watered-down versions of extremes, as though the speaker "chickened out" of a fully committed exaggeration. That's what we mean by a "mitigated hyperbole." The phrase, "It's a definite possibility," for example, at first resounds with confident certainty, but committing to something being "definite" is risky: it's being cock-sure of things you might not really be sure of; expressing certitude as a possibility falsely tones down the exaggeration, maybe because the speaker thinks it sounds more reasonable, objective, and even-tempered.

The following qualifiers tend to be the most frequently used in mitigated hyperboles; each is followed by a short example of a mitigated hyperbole:

  • almost (almost despotic)
  • almost exactly (their suits were almost exactly alike)
  • as much (this task didn't completely consume my time as much)
  • close to (close to a perfect date)
  • just about (just about perfect)
  • kind of / sort of (kind of homemade-looking)
  • less than (less than stellar)
  • literally (literally freaking out)
  • a little / a little bit (a little obsessive)
  • nearly (nearly a total loss)
  • practically (practically dying from boredom)
  • pretty much / pretty close, etc.) (pretty much a disaster)
  • somewhat (her technique was somewhat all over the place)
  • virtually (one virtually inescapable conclusion)

Types of Mitigated Hyperbole

The mitigated hyperbole isn't newfangled, but it has become a more common phenomenon in the last fifty years. The filler word "like," which came into frequent use during the latter decades of the twentieth century, may have been one of the early examples that opened the floodgates to an attitude of mitigated hyperbole. "Filler words" are words and phrases such as "uhm" and "you know what I mean?" that we often utter unconsciously to fill "dead air" while we think of what to say next. The exclamation, "That was, like, crazy!" uses the filler word "like" but also offers the exaggeration "crazy." "Crazy" is a pejorative term that means, "having a fractured mind; mentally unstable"; it's related to the verb "craze," which means, "to cause tiny superficial cracks" (e.g., the little cracks in an eggshell, or the tiny hairline fractures in the glaze of an old teacup). Therefore, when an experience is like crazy, you can back out of fully committing to the claim by implying a non-literal comparison to "crazy": it wasn't really crazy; it was only like something crazy. That phenomenon in which outrageous comparisons were "toned down" by putting emphasis on the work "like" may have started this odd trend in which heightened attention is put on certain words in order to tone down the exaggerative effect of others: a “mitigated hyperbole.”

Mitigated hyperboles fall into several types of oxymorons: extreme mediocrity; comparative absolutes; and, degrees of superlative.

Extreme Mediocrity
Irony is the hallmark of all oxymorons, but some mitigated hyperboles make much ado about nothing. They state strong opinions about neutrality, express intense feelings about ennui, or offer extreme responses to mediocre experiences:

    • absolutely unimpressive
    • completely open-minded
    • exceptionally dull
    • so freakin' boring
    • majorly undecided
    • beyond unacceptable

Comparative Absolutes
Every now and again, everyone makes that slip of the tongue and says "worst than," instead of "worse than." This is a confusion of the comparative with the superlative. We intuitively know that whatever is at its "worst" can no longer be compared; it's reached its extreme. Many adjectives and adverbs can be changed from their basic positive form to their comparative form with the addition of -er or "more," and to their extreme, superlative form by adding -est or "most." Some nouns, however, already imply an extreme or absolute condition, so it's not appropriate to use them in comparisons. With the exception of fanciful apocalyptic zombie scenarios, you wouldn't compare how dead people are: "Dead Person A wasn't as much dead as Dead Person B." Certain types of mitigated hyperboles inappropriately use extremes or superlative qualifiers to express comparisons:

Today's calculus homework didn't entirely overwhelm me as much as yesterday's.
After some simple breathing exercises, she was more completely calm.
They never invite us to their parties as much anymore.
The new club president is less an all-out tyrant than our last one.
My latest attempt to fix his relationship was even more a total waste of time than my last.


Degrees of Superlative (a.k.a. Euphemism and Dysphemism)
Perhaps one of the most annoying types of mitigated hyperbole uses ironic degrees of "extreme." This is not a new concept. George Orwell's prophetic novel, 1984, made it familiar to us: in the "Goodspeak" of Oceana, egregiously unfortunate news was called "doubleplus ungood" so that "bad," "worse," and "worst" could be described in degrees of the "upbeat," rather than degrees of "negative." Such language is either euphemistic (a "euphemism" is a pleasant substitute for an unpleasant expression) or dysphemistic (a "dysphemism" is an intentionally unpleasant substitute for a pleasant or neutral expression). However, speaking with sarcasm and irony has been fashionable for so long now that many people don't even realize they're communicating ironically. Consider how often you hear, or use, the following ironic exaggerations:

    • not crazy [wild] about
    • don't love it [don't hate it]
    • not wowed by
    • far from excellent
    • underwhelming
    • less than stellar [amazing, great, etc.]
    • not great
    • short of perfection
    • not-so-terrible [-fresh, -wonderful, -great, -good, etc.]

In writing or other activities involving rhetoric and argument, communication in degrees of superlative isn't just hyperbolic. It's also considered slippery, biased, manipulative, and untrustworthy. Debate-style news programs offer ready examples of this phenomenon: knowing they're going on record in a public arena, participants walk a fine line between libel and opinion by not fully committing to their own extreme remarks:

Wouldn't you agree that the President has sort of abandoned the responsibilities of the office?
Abortion doctors are nearly Nazi-like in their defense of their actions.
The House passing this bill is almost an act of insanity.


Other times, though, these watered down exaggerations are used to make topics sound more like urgent news than they really are:

Oil companies are waging a virtual all-out war on high gas prices this summer.
CBS has canceled the show mid-season, making some viewers somewhat distraught.
Up next: the newest trend making parents a little angst-ridden about what their "tweener" children wear when they're not watching.

Note how, in all of the examples above, at least one word expresses an extreme idea, and other words falsely express that idea in degrees. In everyday conversation and informal writing, you probably won't be faulted for this kind of language. In more formal college writing, however, our tone should sound pragmatic: we're expected to write what we mean, and do so with precise language. As discussed above, hyperbolic language isn't compatible with persuasively objective tone, but the addition of qualifiers to an hyperbole does NOT solve the problem of untrustworthy exaggeration. In fact, it just draws more attention to it, making the writer even more unreliable.

Following are a number of examples of mitigated hyperbole. Even though it's a "definite possibility" that you won't be tempted to use any of these in your formal writing, they nonetheless demonstrate the variety of techniques and rhetorical effects writers think they gain from using mitigated hyperboles.

A. The actors on stage were panicking a little.

Panic is a state of crisis. It cannot be experienced in small amounts; if it is, then it's not actual panic. Rather, it's worry, nervousness, insecurity, concern, confusion, anxiety, upset, agitation, or an equivalent mental state. It's difficult to take seriously a 9-1-1 phone call from someone who claims to be feeling panicked about hostilities in the Middle East. If that person threatens to harm himself as a result, his worry may have escalated into an actual panic attack, and we'll take his call seriously. Otherwise, it's a waste of our taxes to send out an emergency response, because his panic was not sincere. So it goes when people manipulatively say they're "panicking a little": if you have to measure it in small amounts, it ain't really panic.

B. Americans are almost obsessive about their Soap Operas.

Similar to panic, obsession is "an uncontrollable fixation," usually suggestive of mental instability. Anything short of "obsessive," as in "almost obsessive," should not be likened to obsession. Rather, it is merely enthusiasm or keen interest. There's no such thing as "almost obsessive."

C. For some adoptees who meet their real parents for the first time, the experience can be underwhelming.

Just because an experience isn't "overwhelming" (which is, itself, an hyperbole), this doesn't mean it's the opposite by default. Experiences like this don't happen in clear-cut opposite extremes. To add insult to injury, there is no such word as "underwhelm."

D. I was literally screaming like a banshee.

Because a banshee is a mythological character, screaming like one is automatically an exaggeration of mythic proportion, so the word "literally" is used here out of desperation to get readers to take the comparison more seriously. Do you believe this person literally screams like a banshee? Do you trust anyone who believes they can scream like a banshee?

E. My day was pretty close to awe-inspiring.

"Awe" and "shock" are related concepts: both are extreme reactions and, as such, have no business being a yardstick of "good" and "bad." Something is either entirely worthy of awe, or it is not. "Close to awe-inspiring" is like being "very nearly nauseated." Besides, what's wrong with having a plain, ol' good day? Is the only good day the one on which you drop to your knees and ponder the mystery of existence?

F. Being arrested was not-so-helpful to his reputation as a politician.

Should being arrested be thought of as "helpful" in the first place? And, shouldn't it be called something else if it isn't "helpful"? Aren't there other apt words to describe the kind of experience it really was? Are we allowed to describe the opposite of "not-so-helpful" as "not-so-terribly not- so-helpful"?

G. I'm not feeling fabulous right now.

Feeling fabulous? I've known some drag queens in my time who have earned the right to say they are, or aren't, feeling fabulous. Out of drag, however, most of us describe our state of physical or emotional well-being in language far less effervescent.

H. The rug I just got this week looks almost exactly like my old one.

Either it is exactly like the old rug, or it merely resembles it; if it isn't exactly the same, then using the word "exactly" is hyperbolic and using the word "almost" is an admission to that.

I. Most middle-income earners definitely try to downsize a little at some point in their lives.

Taken literally, this sentence means most middle-income earners are resolute to do very little, as if to say, "And in their wishy-washiness, they shall be absolute!"

J. The news was kind of crushing.

"Crushing" is a deeply emotional reaction. It's okay to say you were moved or saddened, or that you found the news affecting; those are legitimate, normal reactions to bad or tragic news, even though they're not "completely crushing!" True, some events do elicit this reaction. Following the destruction of the World Trade Center, many people were unable to function normally because of how depressed and angry they became. However, if this isn't really the effect, then to say something is "kind of crushing" does more to discount the seriousness of the news than to honor it, for it makes other people's misfortunes nothing more than "a bummer." People say things like "kind of crushing" when they think they're supposed to feel more deeply than they really do, and don't want to appear otherwise. Or, they do feel deeply about it and don't want others to see them as weak, emotional, and vulnerable as a result. All of this is merely a fiction.

K. The guy was somewhat of a Hitler when it came to the rules of the game.

Fortunately, the pejorative uses of "Nazi" and “Hitler” are being kept more in check these days, as people are beginning to realize how insulting the terms are, not in the outright comparison of someone to Adolf Hitler's regime, but rather to the six million plus people who were cruelly exterminated under it. Light comparisons to very dark and tragic circumstances are, at best, insincere, and, at worst, insensitive and cruel in their ironic intention. This sort of mitigated hyperbole shares the same box with phrases like "almost a war zone," forgetful of the fact that real people deserve not to have their real tragedies and dangers trivialized for the sake of an insincere comparison.

L. You never even want to talk to me anymore as much.

"Anymore" is an absolute, while "as much" is a comparative qualifier; they contradict each other.

M. The pay is not much, but the benefits are not insignificant.

The hyperboles "Much" and "insignificant" are not standards by which to measure anything, nor should we measure payment and benefits according to what they are not. When you're asked how old you are by a prospective employer, you don't say "not young" or "not middle-aged" because that sort of evasiveness and irony isn't appropriate.

N. Hilary Clinton has truly sort of separated her achievements from her husband's.

The hyperbole "truly" is contradicted by the phrase "sort of."

O. The fact is, this decision could be disastrous for the future of civil rights in this country.

The phrase "the fact" is used hyperbolically to suggest an absolute, indisputable "black and white" certainty, whereas "could be disastrous" suggests an opinion or interpretation open to dispute.

P. The mall on Black Friday was almost hellish.

"Hellish" indicates a degree of discomfort approaching "extreme"; the word "almost" is used here as an admission that any comparisons to "hell" are insincere.

Q. When they told me the news, I was a little bit speechless.

"Speechless" means "completely at a loss for words." Logically, a "little bit" of "completely at a loss" is still nothin'. In a world where extreme reactions are the only way people can express themselves, "a little bit speechless" is an attempt at subtlety—a ridiculously illogical attempt, that is.

R. Unbelievably fun, seriously affordable.

“Seriously affordable” is an oxymoron, in that “affordable” is a neutral adjective, and “seriously” is an extreme adverb: an example of extreme mediocrity. However, this short phrase has even more mitigated hyperbole: “unbelievably” is one of our strangest oxymorons in that it is, both, exaggerative and contradictory, since it asks us to especially believe what should not be believed. While the majority of mitigated hyperboles come in phrases, this is one of the rare single-word mitigated hyperboles in the English language. Another is the word “incredible,” which literally means “not credible.”

T. He's living in a place that definitely isn't exactly on the fashion map.

Extreme mediocrity strikes again. The phrase "isn't exactly" is weakly sarcastic. The extreme adverb "definitely," when paired with its opposite, "not exactly," turns lukewarm sarcasm into an oxymoron. (On an unrelated note: Is there actually such a thing as a fashion map? Does Rand MacNally make it?)

U. This shows an impressive level of perfectionism.

Hmmm. A "level" of perfectionism, huh. Miriam Webster's Unabridged Dictionary defines "perfectionism" as follows: "a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable." You can strive for perfectionism, or achieve a level of perfection, but the phrase, "a level of perfectionism," implies perfectionism is mitigated by levels or degrees, which makes sense only if the word "perfectionism" has been used with extreme exaggeration in the first place. Short answer: "level of perfectionism" is an exaggerated oxymoron.

Test Yourself

Okay. Now it's your turn. Identify the mitigated hyperbole and oxymorons in the following sentences.

1. "We had a bit of a major change."
—Property Brothers (real estate reality program)
2. "My level of fear subsided."
—TV commercial, "Cancer Treatment Centers of America"
3. "Vanessa is one of my very best friends."
—Heroes of Cosplay (reality show)
4. The new Scorsese film was very reminiscent of a 1972 film by Antonioni.
5. "It could certainly bring some closure to the families of the passengers."
—Journalist reporting on the 2014 missing Malaysian Airlines
6. "It feels not very fresh and modern, at all."
—Interior designer
7. "It would certainly confirm that, pretty much, all hope is lost."
—A journalist comments on the fruitless search for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370
8. State taxpayers seem ambivalent to no end about increasing the minimum wage.
9. ”That outfit is beyond pedestrian.”
—Fashion Queens
10. “It's fascinating during the Olympics to watch foreign policy collide a little bit with sports.”
—CNN The Situation Room


1. "We had a bit of a major change.”

"Bit of" connotes a minor concern, which contradicts the word "major."

2. "My level of fear subsided.”

"Level" implies a lessening in progress, while "subsided" suggests a complete removal.

3. "Vanessa is one of my very best friends.”

The phrase "very best" is used to indicate a single, optimal or superlative choice, while "one of" means a variety of choices.

4. The new Scorsese film was very reminiscent of a 1972 film by Antonioni.

Reminiscent" means that the one thing is a passing reminder of another; anything more than a reminder is a similarity, an allusion, or an outright reference, and not a reminiscence. "Very reminiscent" is, therefore, an oxymoron.

5. "It could certainly bring some closure to the families of the passengers.”

The ambivalent phrase "Some closure" is not an absolute, whereas "certainly" is. A definitive ambivalence is, both, an oxymoron and an exaggeration.

6. "It feels not very fresh and modern, at all.”

This sentence is guilty of relying, both, on degrees of superlativeness and on extreme mediocrity: 1) "very fresh" is a superlative, and "not" describes it as a degree of superlative; 2) "not very fresh" connotes average freshness or less, and "at all" indicates this is somehow extreme or absolute.

7. "It would certainly confirm that, pretty much, all hope is lost.”

Absolute phrases such as "all hope is lost" cancel out cautious qualifiers such as "pretty much," and the word "certainly" contradicts the conditional mood of "would... confirm."

8. State taxpayers seem ambivalent to no end about increasing the minimum wage.

The word "ambivalent" in this sentence means "undecided" or "unconcerned," while the phrase "to no end" is used to make the ambivalence sound decisive or determined.

9. ”That outfit is beyond pedestrian.”

The phrase "beyond pedestrian" is by definition another version of "extreme mediocrity."

10. “It's fascinating during the Olympics to watch foreign policy collide a little bit with sports.”

A collision is violent and head-on, defined as "solid rather than glancing or sideswiping contact"; consequently, something can't collide "a little bit."

Last Updated: 11/04/2016
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