Litotes: Ironic Negative Understatements

The mysterious Litotes – what is it and how can I use it in my speech?

Figure of Speech

Litotes is a figure of speech. It’s a negative understatement. We massively understate something to make it seem smaller, worse, or less than it really is. And there always must be a negative in the sentence.

You don’t really need to learn the fancy word, but it is a very useful concept to grasp, as it is everywhere in the English-speaking world. British people love it! In Films, books, and everyday conversations – native speakers will commonly use litotes in their speech without even knowing what it is.

How It Works

It works like this. Instead of making a direct statement, you say that the opposite is NOT true. It’s quite simple but can be a bit tricky to really get it. In saying that something is not a particular thing, we are showing that it is very far from that thing.

You’re going to need examples for this one. A very simple example would be:

I didn’t hate the food.

By using not and the negative word ‘hate’ I am emphasising just how much I did enjoy the food. Or if someone told me that the food was not bad at all I would assume that the food was quite good.

You have probably often heard people say that something is not a bad idea, implying that they think it’s a great idea.

Further Examples

We often use extreme words and phrases. Let’s take an ordinary direct positive statement:

This is a very simple thing to understand.

But if we turn it into litotes, it becomes… This is not rocket science!

Or any other profession that requires a lot of intelligence or is extremely difficult to do… This is not brain surgery!

So, we use the extreme idea to emphasise how simple the thing is that we are talking about.

Or we can use it with a superlative like the best or the most:

Well, that was not the best day of my life = my day was pretty awful

Another really common example: I was not best pleased = I was furious!

Why Use Litotes?

Why do we do this? It just makes life more interesting! Once you understand how to construct it, you can have a lot of fun with it!

We can use it to be more polite: I was not massively impressed with the service at that restaurant.

So… I was very far from being impressed with the service, I just didn’t want to say “the service was terrible”.

Or we can use it to be quite caustic: Growing up in this family was no picnic = I had a difficult childhood.

Sometimes, the way you say it and the tone of voice is the only thing that discerns litotes from an ordinary statement. Watch the video to hear what I mean!

Questions & Comments

As always, comments and questions can be left under the video on YouTube.

Until next time!

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