Litotes

Have you ever heard someone say "that's not bad" when they mean that something is decent? You may be familiar with this phrase, as it is commonly used in daily life. This phrase is an example of litotes. But, what is litotes? We will explore the meaning of litotes and look at some examples of litotes in a sentence. We will consider the effects of litotes on a listener/reader and the difference between the two types - understatement and sarcasm.

Litotes Litotes

Create learning materials about Litotes with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Meaning of Litotes

    Litotes is a form of verbal irony that uses a negative statement to express the opposite of what is meant. It is used to ironically understate what is being said, making something seem less than/smaller than what it actually is. This is often done by using double negatives (such as 'I can't not go.') - but not always!

    Litotes is a figure of speech, a literary device not supposed to be taken literally. You should focus on the figurative meaning instead.

    For example, if it was a beautiful day, you could say:

    The weather isn't too terrible.

    The speaker literally means that the weather is good, but they are figuratively understating it to make it seem less impressive.

    Litotes Image of a beach StudySmarterFig. 1 - Litotes can be used to understate gorgeous weather!

    Litotes Examples in Daily Life

    Litotes are often used in daily conversations. We use many litotes in a sentence. They can be used to understate a positive situation, as shown in the examples below:

    That's not too shabby.

    This indicates that something is actually good.

    He's not unlike his dad.

    This suggests that he is similar to his dad.

    I can't disagree with what you said.

    This implies that the person agrees with what was said.

    I'm not unfamiliar with that book.

    This means that the person actually knows a lot about the book.

    Litotes can also be used to understate a negative situation. For example:

    That film is not my favourite.

    This implies that the person doesn't like the film.

    She doesn't seem the happiest.

    This suggests that she is unhappy.

    He's not the cleanest person.

    This indicates that he is an unclean person.

    She wasn't the smartest.

    This implies that she was not smart.

    In some cases, the meaning of a litotic statement can be ambiguous - either meaning something positive or negative depending on how the statement is uttered or the context of the situation. For example:

    The phrase 'not bad' can be used to literally mean 'good'.

    However, if the emphasis is placed on 'bad' (by raising the intonation of the voice), it can instead mean that something is not bad, but is not good either. This is like saying 'It's not bad, but...' - implying that there is another literal meaning besides the opposite.

    Litotes Examples

    An example of literary litotes in a sentence is apparent in Shakespeare's Hamlet (1609) during the speech of King Claudius. In this speech, he is referring to Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway:

    He hath not failed to pester us with message".

    In this example, 'hath not failed' is used to imply that he has been successful in pestering King Claudius with messages.

    Litotes Image of Hamlet's skull StudySmarterFig. 2 - Litotes can be found in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

    Another example is seen in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813) when Elizabeth is considering leaving home to visit her sister Charlotte:

    ...with such a mother and such uncompanionable sisters, home could not be faultless, a little change was not unwelcome for its own sake."

    Here, litotes is used in a humorous way to politely indicate that home is becoming intolerable for Elizabeth; her home does in fact have faults. As a result, she'd be happy to welcome change and leave her home.

    Litotes Examples - Ordinary vs Litotic

    Below are a few examples of how ordinary statements may be altered to form litotic statements:

    Ordinary statement: The comedian's performance was bad.

    Litotes: The comedian's performance wasn't the best.

    Ordinary Statement: It was a big deal.

    Litotes: It wasn't that big of a deal.

    Ordinary statement: It is easy to do.

    Litotes: It isn't rocket science.

    Ordinary statement: I don't like it.

    Litotes: It isn't my cup of tea.

    The Effect of Litotes

    Litotes can be used for a variety of reasons (both in daily life and literature) to achieve different effects and elicit different responses from the listener/reader. Some further examples of litotes in a sentence are as follows:

    Ironic humour

    Litotes can be used for comedic purposes to evoke humour in an ironic way. It is usually done in a more informal context, among people who are familiar with one another. For example:

    Someone is hungry and they say, 'There isn't anything I won't eat when I'm hungry!' This is used to comically imply the lengths they would go to when hungry; they would eat anything.

    Two friends are out in the pouring rain and one says, 'The weather isn't the best today!' This is used in a light-hearted way to imply that the weather is actually awful.

    Euphemism

    The use of litotes allows people to state things in an indirect way that is less harsh. This is known as a euphemism. As a result, this could be seen as more polite and respectful than directly stating the literal meaning. For example:

    In the cult classic 1986 film, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the principal states that Ferris 'does not have what we would consider an exemplary attendance record.' Although this is said to criticise Ferris' attendance, it is less blunt than simply stating that he has a bad attendance record.

    Someone may say that an older relative 'is not as young as they used to be.' This is used to imply that they are getting older and are not as physically fit as they were when they were younger. It is more polite than directly stating someone is old!

    Modesty

    Litotes can be used to downplay someone's achievements/skills, as not to brag about themselves or make others feel jealous. For example:

    A professional pianist saying 'I'm not the worst at playing the piano.' This is used to acknowledge their skills, but in a way that is not boastful or arrogant.

    A successful artist saying 'my artwork is not bad' instead of directly stating that their artwork is impressive. This makes them seem more humble and down to earth.

    Litotes vs Understatement

    Understatement is the intentional underplaying of something to make it seem less important than it is. Understatement does not use double negatives to do this. For example:

    Claiming to know 'a little' about a subject you have a degree in.

    On the other hand, litotes is a kind of understatement that ironically negates a statement to express the opposite of what is meant - often done through the use of double negatives.

    Litotes vs Sarcasm

    Although both of these could be considered a form of verbal irony and they are both examples of figures of speech, there is a difference.

    Let's look at the meaning of sarcasm:

    Sarcasm is a language technique often used in a bitter but humorous way to deliberately make fun of something or mock someone.

    Someone fails a test and you say, 'Wow Einstein, you’re so clever, you did such a good job!' This is a negative statement in the form of praise, with the deliberate aim of mocking someone.

    Litotes - Key Takeaways

    • Litotes is a form of verbal irony that uses a negative statement to express the opposite of what is meant. It is used to ironically understate what is being said.
    • Litotes is an example of a figure of speech.
    • Litotes is used in both daily life and literature, and we frequently use litotes in a sentence.
    • The meaning of litotes can change depending on the context of the situation and the intonation of the speaker.
    • Litotes can be used for ironic humour, euphemism, modesty.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Litotes

    What is litotes?

    Litotes is a form of verbal irony that uses a negative statement to express the opposite of what is meant. It is used to ironically understate what is being said.

    What is an example of litotes?

    An example of litotes is 'it’s not the best', which implies that something is bad.

    What is the effect of litotes?

    Litotes can have different effects, including:

    • evoking humour
    • euphemism
    • create modesty

    What is the difference between litotes and understatement?

    Understatement is the intentional underplaying of something to make it seem less important than it is. Litotes is a kind of understatement that ironically negates a statement to express the opposite of what is meant - often done through double negatives.

    Can litotes be positive or negative?

    Litotes can be used to understate both a positive and negative situation.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Litotes is used to ironically _______ what is being said.

    Litotes never uses double negatives.True or false?

    Litotes can be used for comedic purposes.True or false?

    Next

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Litotes Teachers

    • 8 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App