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
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)
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.
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)