Litotes

Litotes usually occurs when a speaker attempts to avoid making an affirmative claim directly, but instead denies its opposite.
Litotes usually occurs when a speaker attempts to avoid making an affirmative claim directly, but instead denies its opposite.

Breaking Down Litotes with Examples

Litotes (etymologically derives from the Greek word “litos,” literally means “plain,” “small,” or “meagre”) is a figure of speechOpens in new window that uses understatementOpens in new window to emphasize a point, of which an affirmationOpens in new window is expressed by the negative of the opposite, thereby amounting to a double negativeOpens in new window.

Litotes usually occurs when a speaker attempts to avoid making an affirmative claim directly, but instead denies its opposite. As in: ‘A citizen of no mean city’. In litotes two negatives do not just cancel out, nor do they merely make a positive, but effectively make a strong positive.

Practical Examples of Litotes
Litotes UnderstatementActual Expression
You are no ordinary girl.You are ordinary girl.
You’re not wrong, that’s not a good idea.You are wrong, that’s a bad idea.
She is not as young as she was.She is old.
It's not my first major project..I am experienced.
This is no trivial issue.This is a serious issue.
Litotes Expression with Double Negatives
  • “Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.”
  • — Franklin, speech at Federal Ratifying Convention (1787)
  • “Men whom one met in Washington were not unhappy about the state of things, as I had seen men unhappy in the North and in the West.”
  • — Trollope, North America (1862)
  • She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not quite what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot.”
  • — Twain, Following the Equator (1897)
  • Litotes may also be used to express two contrasting ideas as in the expression below:
    “A physician being mentioned who had lost his practice, because his whimsically changing his religion had made people distrustful of him, I maintained that this was unreasonable, as religion is unconnected with medical skill.
    Johnson (replies) : “Sir, it is not unreasonable; for when people see a man absurd in what they understand, they may conclude the same of him in what they do not understand.”
  • — Bosswell, Life of Johnson (1791)
Concluding Note

Litotes significantly adds elegance, variety and rhetoric effect in which case it understates a serious situation, by making it seem less important than it really is; a vital means of achieving this is the use of double negatives. This device emphasize a point without wounding humane feelings.

Litotes is a stylistic device originated from Ancient English poetry; it is wildly used in present time literature and in contemporary conversations.

Further Readings:
Ad Herennium (Transgressio) 4.32.44; Susenbrotus (hyperbaton, transgression) 1540/31
Thomas Horne | Rhetoricae compendium, Latino-Anglice (1651); John Newton’s | An Introduction to the Art of Rhetorick (1671)