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Litotes: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Litotes
  • 0:59 Examples
  • 3:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

In this lesson, we'll be taking a look at litotes, which is a figure of speech used in literature, usually for the sake of comedy. Once you understand this, you'll probably be seeing them everywhere. After learning about litotes, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Litotes

We all have days where we get up for work late, stain our favorite work shirt with coffee and then go outside only to find that the battery on our car has died. Most people might scream or curse, but others might have a surprisingly low-key reaction, like a monotone, 'Hmm, this day has been less than good so far.' That low-key reaction is a perfect example of litotes!

Litotes is a figure of speech that understates a situation or action. In other words, the speaker or writer presents a situation or action as much less important than it actually is. To do this, the person using litotes usually states a negative; in other words, the opposite of how the situation actually is - for example, saying 'this day has been less than good,' instead of saying 'this day has been very, very bad!' Sometimes, writers do this because it is funny for someone to react much less violently than we would expect or to show that someone is passive about how they feel.

Examples

Let's take a look at a few examples of litotes.

Say you go over to your friend's house. He's known as the type of cook that can't boil water without burning the kitchen down, but he insists that you try his new lobster pasta dish. Instead of getting sick, however, the dish tastes good. It tastes really, really good, actually!

Surprised about the dinner, you say out loud, 'Wow, that dinner was not too bad! Not too bad at all.' This is an example of litotes. Instead of saying using a positive to describe the dish -that dish was good! - you use a negative - not bad. This use of a negative leads you to understate how impressed you are with your friend for his dish. It might also show that you approve of his dish, but not overwhelmingly so.

You may still be wondering how an upbeat comment can be a negative rather than a positive.

Think of it this way: A positive actually states the way things are. If something is good, a speaker that is speaking in the positive would call it that: 'That dish is good.'

A negative actually states the opposite of the way things are. If something is good, a speaker uses the opposite description to speak about it: 'That dish is not bad.'

Litotes only occurs when a speaker speaks in the negative rather in the positive.

In this example of litotes used in an advertisement, the baby representing the year 1943 uses the phrase
LitotesExample

Let's look at another couple of other examples of negation:

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