Definition of Litotes

Litotes is a figure of speech featuring a phrase that utilizes negative wording or terms to express a positive assertion or statement. Litotes is a common literary device, most often used in speech, rhetoric, and nonfiction. As a figure of speech, the meaning of litotes is not literal. Instead, litotes is intended to be a form of understatement by using negation to express the contrary meaning. This is a clever use of language in its combination of negative terms as a function to express a positive sentiment or statement.

Litotes is a device used to state an affirmative without direct use of affirmative wording. For example, the phrase “I don’t hate it” reflects use of litotes. In this case, juxtaposing the negative words “don’t” and “hate” function together to indicate the opposite meaning or affirmative. In saying “I don’t hate it,” the speaker is actually affirming the sentiment “I like it.” However, since the speaker does not directly say “I like it,” the affirmation is mitigated and downplayed. The use of litotes in this case reflects the speaker’s intention to state a positive without directly affirming it or being too complimentary. Instead of expressing “like” for something, litotes in this case expresses an absence of hate.

Common Examples of Litotes

Litotes is commonly used as an understatement or ironic figure of speech. It is a successful device in that it affirms a positive statement or sentiment typically through the use of double negatives. Here are some common examples of litotes you may find in everyday conversation:

  • The novel is not bad.
  • You’re not wrong.
  • I can’t disagree with your logic.
  • My feelings are not unhurt.
  • He is hardly unattractive.
  • That lesson is not hard.
  • My car was not cheap.
  • I won’t argue with the referee.
  • Visiting family is not uncommon.
  • The results are not inaccurate.
  • That compliment is not unwelcome.
  • I can’t turn down that offer.
  • The weather is not unpleasant.
  • His answer was hardly a whisper.
  • Her decision is not the worst.
  • The test came back not negative.
  • That dress is not unlike mine.
  • I can’t say that I won’t try the dessert.
  • Your effort has not gone unnoticed.

Examples of Litotes in Rhetoric

Litotes is a common device used in rhetoric. This is primarily because it prompts a listener or reader to carefully consider what is being said. Litotes also allows the speaker or writer to effectively communicate in an atypical way. Here are some examples of litotes in rhetoric (speeches and nonfiction writing):

  • Indeed, it is not uncommon for slaves even to fall out and quarrel among themselves about the relative goodness of their masters, each contending for the superior goodness of his own over that of the others. (Frederick Douglass)
  • Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has. (Margaret Mead)
  • A designer knows he or she has achieved perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. (Nolan Haims)
  • I do not speak of what I cannot praise. (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe)
  • He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. (Joseph Conrad
  • The problem with speeches isn’t so much not knowing when to stop, as knowing when not to begin. (Frances Rodman)
  • My father had three wives. Polygamy was not uncommon in that country, especially among the rich, as every man was allowed to keep as many wives as he could maintain. (Venture Smith)

Famous Examples of Litotes in Disney Movie Lines

Many Disney films contain lines that make use of litotes as a figure of speech to emphasize a positive or showcase understatement through using double negative phrasing. This causes the audience to ponder the actual meaning of the statement. Here are some famous examples of litotes in Disney movie lines:

  • This is no ordinary lamp! (Disney’s Aladdin)
  • Now, Pooh was not the sort to give up easily. (Disney’s The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh)
  • Sometimes the right path is not the easiest one. (Disney’s Pocahontas)
  • Success doesn’t come for free. (Disney’s Coco)
  • He’s no Prince Charming. (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)

Writing Litotes

Writers often utilize figures of speech to create a specific effect for the reader. As a figure of speech, litotes resembles understatement due to the fact that the intended meaning of the phrase or sentence seems less significant through negative wording. In this way, litotes serve a purpose for writers as method for expressing modesty, discretion, or verbal irony by making a statement about what “is” by stating what “is not.”

Proper Use of Double Negatives

When creating litotes, it’s important for writers to understand the proper use of double negatives. Essentially litotes is similar to a double negative in the sense that it features juxtaposition of negative terms to express a positive. However, double negatives are often considered improper or incorrect grammar. As a literary device, litotes does not feature incorrect or improper grammar. As a result, writers can effectively use litotes as a means of expressing understatement to their readers through a form of double negative. However, it must be grammatically correct.

Overuse of Litotes

Like any figure of speech or literary device, it’s important for writers to not overuse litotes. Incorporating frequent litotes can be distracting, tiresome, and repetitious for a reader. This results in a loss of effectiveness for this form of figurative language.

Examples of Litotes in Literature

Litotes is not utilized frequently as a literary device in literature. However, it is featured in some important literary works  as a means of gaining a reader’s attention and expressing meaning in an understated way. Here are some examples of litotes in literature and the way they influence the meaning of the literary work:

Example 1: Sonnet 116 “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” (William Shakespeare)

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand’ring bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
In this well-known sonnet, Shakespeare makes use of litotes as figurative language and an effective literary device. By negating what love is not, the poet is able to express and affirm what love is. For example, when the poet states “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” he is using negative wording to express his desire to not create any interference with the marriage of “true minds.” This figurative language actually affirms the poet’s support and approval of love and marriage between true minds.
Shakespeare utilizes another litotes in the sonnet by stating “Love’s not Time’s fool.” By stating that Love is not Time’s “fool,” the poet affirms that Love is not beholden to or manipulated by Time. In addition, this litotes also implies that Love is as wise as Time. As with the first litotes, this figure of speech asserts that Love is strong and steadfast by negating the contrary meaning of Love being Time’s fool. As a result of this literary device, Shakespeare’s reader gains greater clarity as to what love is and how the poet feels about it.

Example 2: The Prelude: Book 1: Childhood and School-time (William Wordsworth)

 Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideway, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the image of a star
That gleam’d upon the ice
In his poetic work, Wordsworth utilizes litotes by pairing the words “not” and “seldom.” This negation implies that the poet means “often” by stating “not seldom.” In this way, he creates a sense of understatement about the frequency with which he separates himself from a crowd or busy environment to appreciate images and the presence of nature. Wordsworth’s use of litotes as a literary device creates a sense of poetic language and introspection for the reader as well as the poet himself. Therefore, paradoxically, by understating how often the poet escapes into nature, it actually emphasizes the importance of the action. The litotes allows the escape to become significant for the reader as well.

Example 3: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (T.S. Eliot)

i am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
The speaker of Eliot’s poem, Prufrock, utilizes litotes as a significant understatement to describe his fear and vision of death. Prufrock holds out to his reader that he is presenting “no great matter.” This implies that his intention is to make a statement that is not important or impactful. As a litotes, it is also a form of verbal irony, as the “matter” Prufrock subsequently addresses is his own “greatness” diminishing. In addition, Prufrock also addresses his fear as a result of seeing death personified in the poem as the “eternal Footman.”
Therefore, what the poet deems as “no great matter” is, in fact, the greatest of matters. He is confronting his demise and mortality. In turn, this results in an admission of fear that is considered universal among humans. This litotes effectively leaves readers to speculate the irony of Prufrock’s figurative language, and consider for themselves whether confronting their own mortality is also no great matter.