[lahy-tuh-teez, lit-uh-, lahy-toh-teez]
litotes, figure of speech in which a statement is made by indicating the negative of its opposite, e.g., "not many" meaning "a few." A form of irony, litotes is meant to emphasize by understating. Its opposite is hyperbole.
In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech in which, rather than making a certain statement directly, a speaker expresses it even more effectively, or achieves emphasis, by denying its opposite. For example, rather than merely saying that a person is rather attractive (or even very attractive), one might say that he or she is "not unattractive".

By its nature, litotes is a form of understatement, always deliberate and with the intention of subtle emphasis. However, the interpretation of litotes can depend on context, including cultural context. In speech, it may also depend on intonation and emphasis; for example, the phrase "not bad" can be said in such a way as to mean anything from "mediocre" to "excellent".

The use of litotes appeals specifically to certain cultures including the northern Europeans and is popular with the British. It is a feature of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and is a means of much stoical restraint.


Litotes: As a means of saying:
"[…] no ordinary city." Acts 21:39 (NIV) "[…] a very impressive city."
"That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now." (Beowulf) "The sword was useful."
"That does not surprise me." "That is to be expected."
"He was not unfamiliar with the works of Dickens." "He was well acquainted with the works of Dickens."
"The food was not bad." "The food was acceptable/good (depending in emphasis)."
"That was no big deal." "That was nothing."
"She is not so unkind" "She is kind"
"She was not a little cross." "She was very cross."
"You're not wrong." (Australian English) "You're right."
"I couldn't disagree less." (double litotes) "I agree."

Other languages

Litotes is used in languages other than English; in French, "il n'est pas antipathique" (trans.: "he is not mean") is an example, actually meaning "il est très sympathique" (trans.: "he is nice").

In Chinese, the phrase "不错" (literally 'not wrong') is often used to present something as very good or correct.

In Latin, an example of litotes can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses: "non semel" (bk. 1 ln. 692) => 'not one occasion'= 'on more than one occasion'

See also


  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.

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