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When a person uses a litote, he is essentially saying something negative and mixing it with understatement in order to say a positive thing. For example, if someone were to suggest that a given man were not the brightest crayon in the box, then this would be a way of indirectly stating that the man in question is actually quite stupid. This is usually accompanied by a humorous effect when the listener realizes what is actually being said. 


A litote is a literary device derived from the Greek word απλό from litos meaning “simple.” A litote expresses understatement using double negatives. The use of double negatives implies a positive, which negates the negative expressions. The intentional use of understatement employs irony to say the opposite of what it seems one is saying. Understatement using litotes is common in polite and social conversation, making it easy to imply a concept without stating it blatantly. Put another way, a litote is an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary. Its first known use was in 1589.

Litote examples

There are endless examples of litotes in that may be familiar from polite conversation; they are used commonly in everyday situations which require some discretion, as well in common phrases that people use in passing or in greeting. Some examples are:

“She doesn’t seem unhappy, but something seems to be bothering her.”

“He’s not a bad singer.”

“The food wasn’t too horrible.”

“Well, he’s not an Adonis.”

“Rio is not for the faint of heart.”

“I cannot disagree with your point.”

“Your test-taking skills are not bad.”

The use of understatement in litotes adds emphasis to ideas rather than decreasing their importance, as a single negative would. The strength of using litotes in literature and speech is that the phrasing and order of the words causes the audience to focus more on what is truly being said, in effect to decode the message.

How to use litote 

Writers and poets use litotes to communicate everyday conversational nuances, and novel, vivid ideas to their audiences. Literature from the 1800s was particularly rife with litotes, as they fit well with political and academic writing styles of the day. Here is an example from Frederick Douglass, the prominent civil rights activist and abolitionist:

“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.”

J.R. Bergmann wrote “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. It has been stated repeatedly that the best way to attract a potential suitor is to ignore him or her; that is also the case with litotes use in literature or speech; ignoring the object and yet speaking about it in a negative way causes it to appear more prominent and noteworthy.

J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, used litotes frequently in his novel, and here is an example:

“It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”

Samuel Beckett was also a master of the litote, using it often in his writings, as is apparent from the following example from Watt:

“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…”

In some cases, the shock value of litote may be lost in the verbiage of a sentence, so it is important not to go overboard with these expressions. 

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