Litotes is a figure of speech that includes a phrase in which a negative word is used in order to express something positive.
It’s commonly used in novels, short stories, plays, and even poems. Despite its complex-sounding definition, it is also quite common in everyday speech. Litotes is a form of understatement in which a speaker says something negative (not meant to be taken literally) in order to express the opposite. For example, “You won’t regret hiring him” or “I don’t hate it.” The second example of the figure of speech expresses an absence of hate.
Definition of Litotes
The word “litotes” comes from the Greek meaning “simple” or “plain.” It occurs when a speaker, character, or someone in a normal everyday conversation states an affirmative without using the expected, affirmative wording.
The example, “You won’t regret hiring him,” juxtaposes “won’t” and “regret” next to one another. The combination of these negatives creates a positive. The sentence could also be written, “You will be glad you hired him.”
Or, with the other above example, rather than “I don’t hate it,” it could be phrased as “I like it.” Using the negative wording adds more nuance to the sentence and might imply, such as in the second example, that someone is not fully convinced by whatever “it” is, but they don’t completely “hate” or dislike it.
Common Examples of Litotes
As mentioned above, litotes is commonly used as a figure of speech in normal conversations. Below are a few of the many possible examples:
- My car was not expensive.
- I’m not bad at that.
- The test was not easy.
- You’re not wrong.
- The story isn’t bad.
- Those shoes aren’t unlike mine.
- I couldn’t have done worse.
- His choice wasn’t the worst one.
- Adopting pets is not uncommon.
Examples of Litotes in Literature
Also known as ‘let me not to the marriage of true minds,’ ‘Sonnet 116’ provides readers with a clear example of litotes. The poet spends the lines negativing what love is not and therefore expressing what love actually is.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
He says that he doesn’t want to interfere with the “marriage” of true minds in the first line. He’s telling the listener that he supports marriage between like-minded people.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
There is a second example in the ninth line when the poet says that “Love’s not Time’s fool.” Here, he is stating that love is not manipulated by time. It is equally as powerful. As is often the case with litotes, the negation makes the statement more interesting, but it also emphasizes its truth. Readers should feel how important and powerful love is through the juxtaposition of terms.
Read more of William Shakespeare’s poetry.
There are several times in ‘Prufrock’ that T.S. Eliot’s speaker, Prufrock, uses litotes in order to talk about himself and his experience. For example, in these lines from the middle of the poem:
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet — and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
In the second line of his excerpt, the poet writes, “I am no prophet” and that he’s pondering “no great matter.” In both of these examples, he’s negating something in order to describe what he is doing. The “no great matter” he refers to is, in fact, far greater than the line suggests. He’s confronting his mortality and the surety of his eventual death. He admits his fear in the face of this in the following lines.
Explore more of T.S. Eliot poems.
There is a good example of litotes in these lines from the Bible:
And out of them shall proceed thanksgiving and the voice of them that make merry: and I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will also glorify them, and they shall not be small.
Here, God is saying that he’s going to restore honor and glory to the tribe of Jacob. Their numbers shall “not be few” (meaning they’ll be large), and they shall “not be small” (meaning that their glory will be expansive).
Why Do Writers Use Litotes?
Writers use litotes in order to make their writing more interesting, multi-faceted, and more similar to how people talk in everyday conversations. Litotes is incredibly common in conversations among friends, relatives, and coworkers. This means that when it is used in a piece of dialogue, it’s going to make the entire piece feel more realistic and relatable. The technique can also make a line of writing more complex in a way that improves the reader’s overall reception of the work. The use of a negative when the writer really wants to say something positive should make the reader think more deeply about their statement. It can even make that same statement more powerful.
Another possible reason someone might use litotes in their writing is in order to create psychological distance between the character and what they’re saying. It might be too emotional, awkward, or distressing to say exactly what they’re thinking. Therefore, they might hedge their bet and speak in negatives instead.
Similarly, the technique can be used to soften criticism. For example, saying someone’s writing is “not the best” rather than saying their writing is “bad.”
Related Literary Terms
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
- Dichotomy: create conflict between characters, groups, states of being, ideas, and more.
- Metonymy: a kind of figurative language that refers to a situation in which one term is substituted for another.