Litotes definition: Litotes is a literary term for a figure of speech that uses negative terms to express a positive statement.
What is Litotes?
Litotes is a figure of speech. Its meaning is not intended to be taken literally. Litotes is a type of understatement that uses negative words to express the contrary.
Litotes is a way to state the affirmative without actually stating the affirmative.
Litotes is most often used in rhetoric and speech.
- That’s not too bad.
- In this sentence, the negative terms are “not” and “bad.”
- The meaning of this sentence is that “that” is actually “good.”
- However, it’s not really good; or else the speaker would have said that.
- The speaker is trying to state a positive without being too complimentary, because the speaker does not really want to be complimentary.
Litotes is confusing because the meaning is not what it seems.
Litotes vs. Understatement and Double Negative
Litotes is similar to other figures of speech, notably understatement and double negative, but there are some important differences between the three.
What is understatement? Understatement is a figure of speech that makes something seem less significant or less severe than it actually is.
Understatement is very common in everyday speech. Understatement is not meant to be taken literally
Examples of Understatement:
- It’s chilly out here. (When It is actually freezing)
- I’m a little tired. (I’m exhausted.)
Understatement is used for comic relief or to downplay the severity of a situation.
What is double negative? A double negative is an expression that uses two negative terms to express a positive.
Double negatives are actually improper grammar and should be avoided.
Examples of Double Negatives:
- I don’t have no time for that.
- Intended meaning: I don’t have any time for that.
- That won’t do you no good.
- Intended meaning: That won’t do you any good.
- I can’t find no help.
- Intended meaning: I can’t find any help.
What is litotes? Litotes is like an understatement in that it makes the intended meaning of the sentence seem less significant.
Litotes is like a double negative in that it uses negatives terms to express a positive. However, litotes is not incorrect grammar, whereas double negatives are improper grammar.
Litotes actually is a form of understatement that uses a type of double negative (although a grammatically correct one).
Example of Litotes:
- “not too bad” for good
- This is both an understatement and a double negative
For a further discussion on doubles negatives, see here.
The Purpose of Litotes
Litotes is often used in rhetoric. This is because understanding litotes properly causes a pause for the listener.
Litotes are a way to actually emphasize the positive by using a double negative. Litotes causes the listener to think and consider the statement.
Litotes are also a way to skirt an issue or to try to save face.
Examples of Litotes in Literature
Because litotes uses two negative terms to express a positive, is causes a reader or listener to stop and consider the statement.
Litotes can be used effectively in literature; however, litotes is most often used in nonfiction and rhetoric because it successfully helps a speaker communicate his argument.
An example of litotes in nonfiction is evident in Frederick Douglass’ landmark text, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.
“Indeed, it is not uncommon for laves 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.”
The phrase “not uncommon” is an example of litotes. Two negatives are used to express the contrary: That it is actually common for this to occur.
Here, Douglass uses litotes to employ a form of irony. It is strange that slaves would fight each other about the “goodness” of their masters when none of their masters were indeed “good.”
Douglass likely utilizes litotes to emphasize that this behavior was common. The use of the double negative causes pause which makes the reader consider the statement in greater detail.
Define litotes: the definition of litotes is understatement achieved by denying the opposite of an idea.
In summary, litotes is:
- a figure of speech
- a phrase that uses negative terms to express a positive statement
- a tool common in nonfiction and rhetoric