Definition and Examples of Litotes in English Grammar

Queen Victoria
"We are not amused"—a remark attributed to Queen Victoria—is a well-known example of litotes.

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Litotes is a figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. Plural: litotes. Adjective: litotic. Also known (in classical rhetoric) as antenantiosis and moderatour.

Litotes is a form of both conversational implicature and verbal irony. Certain uses of the figure are now fairly common expressions, such as "It's not cheap" (meaning "It's expensive"), "It's not hard" (meaning "It's easy"), and "It's not bad" (meaning "It's good").

In Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (1947), Sister Miriam Joseph observes that litotes "may be used to avoid an appearance of boasting or to veil a threat." Jay Heinrichs notes that what makes litotes remarkable is its "paradoxical ability to turn up the volume by turning it down. 'He didn't set the world on fire' conveys exactly the opposite impression: that his efforts didn't heat up Earth one degree, thank goodness" (​Word Hero, 2011).

  • Etymology: From the Greek, "plainness, simplicity"
  • Pronunciation: LI-toe-teez

Examples and Observations

  • "Are you also aware, Mrs. Bueller, that Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record?" (Jeffrey Jones as Principal Ed Rooney, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, 1986)
  • "I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives." (Abigail Adams, letter to John Adams, May 7, 1776)
  • "Oh, you think you're so special because you get to play Picture Pages up there? Well, my five year old daughter could do that and let me tell you, she's not the brightest bulb in the tanning bed." (Allison Janney as Bren in Juno, 2007)
  • "[W]ith a vigorous and sudden snatch, I brought my assailant harmlessly, his full length, on the not over clean ground--for we were now in the cow yard." (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855)
  • "Because though no beauty by fashion-mag standards, the ample-bodied Ms. Klause, we agreed, was a not unclever, not unattractive young woman, not unpopular with her classmates both male and female." (John Barth, "The Bard Award," in The Development: Nine Stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008)
  • "The grave's a fine a private place,
    But none, I think, do there embrace."
    (Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress")
  • "'Not a bad day's work on the whole,' he muttered, as he quietly took off his mask, and his pale, fox-like eyes glittered in the red glow of the fire. 'Not a bad day's work.'" (Baroness Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905)
  • "Now we have a refuge to go to. A refuge that the Cylons know nothing about! It won't be an easy journey." (Battlestar Galactica, 2003)
  • "I am not unaware how the productions of the Grub Street brotherhood have of late years fallen under many prejudices." (Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub, 1704)
  • "What we know partakes in no small measure of the nature of what has so happily been called the unutterable or ineffable, so that any attempt to utter or eff it is doomed to fail, doomed, doomed to fail." (Samuel Beckett, Watt. Olympia Press, 1953)
  • "Keep an eye on your mother whom we both know doesn't have both oars in the water." (Jim Harrison, The Road Home. Grove Press, 1999)
  • "Let him fly far,
    Not in this land shall he remain uncaught."
    (Gloucester speaking about Edgar in William Shakespeare's King Lear, Act Two, scene one)
  • "We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all." (Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address to the Nation, January 20, 1989)

Litotes as a Form of Understatement

  • "Understated instead of hyperbolic, [litotes] often seems to turn attention away from itself, like its cousin, paralipsis, which emphasizes something by pretending to ignore it, and it can disarm potential opponents and avoid controversy; yet it emphasizes whatever it touches." (Elizabeth McCutcheon, "Denying the Contrary: More's Use of Litotes in the Utopia," in Essential Articles for the Study of Thomas More, 1977)

Litotes as a Form of Irony

  • "Paradoxically, litotes, like hyperbole, involve intensification, suggesting that the speaker's feelings are too deep for plain expression (e.g., 'it's not bad,' 'he's no Hercules,' 'she's no beauty,' 'he's not exactly a pauper'). Because of their two-layer significance--superficial indifference and underlying commitment—litotes are often treated as a category of irony." (Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., "Making Sense of Tropes." Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., edited by Andrew Ortony. Cambridge University Press, 1993)

The Discreet Figure of Speech

  • "Litotes describes the object to which it refers not directly, but through the negation of the opposite. . . .
    "The account given in various rhetorical textbooks reveals a picture of the rhetorical figure litotes which is—to put it aptly—'not very clear.' . . .
    "I want to claim that the rhetorical figure litotes is one of those methods which are used to talk about an object in a discreet way. It clearly locates an object for the recipient, but it avoids naming it directly."
    (J.R. Bergmann, "Veiled Morality," in Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings, ed. by Paul Drew and John Heritage. Cambridge University Press, 1992)

The Limitations of Litotes

  • "Litotes isn't the best figure to use when you're trying to be grand. Litotes does not stir the soul, it's more suited to stirring tea. Even Wordsworth couldn't make it work like that. He was pretty damned good at raising the spirits and soul, but he had the silly habit of using the phrase 'not seldom.' 'Not seldom clad in radiant vest, / Deceitfully goes forth the Morn,' 'Not seldom from the uproar I retired,' 'Not seldom did we stop to watch some tuft / Of dandelion see,' 'not seldom in my walks / A momentary trance comes over me,' and on and on until you want to grab him, slap him, pull out a dictionary and show him the word 'often.'"
    (Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase. Berkley, 2013)

The Lighter Side of Litotes

  • "I also scheduled a physical, since my readers deserve up-to-the-decade information. After I finished my tests, I went into my doctor’s office, where he told me that Trump’s doctor’s report was ridiculous, since it claimed that his lab results were 'astonishingly excellent' and that he would be 'the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.'
    "'Doctors aren’t hyperbolists,' he told me. 'We use litotes.' I had never heard the word litotes, which means 'words doctors use to remind you they’re smarter than you are.' Despite his reluctance, I told him I needed a bold declaration to reassure my readers. 'You’re the healthiest columnist I’ve seen this morning,' he offered."
    (Joel Stein, "The Medical Records You've Been Waiting for Are Right Here in This Column." Time, October 3, 2016)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Litotes in English Grammar." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Definition and Examples of Litotes in English Grammar. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Litotes in English Grammar." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 31, 2023).