Litotes – Definition, Examples & Functions

19.06.24 Academic writing Time to read: 9min

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Litotes, an understatement through double negatives, subtly transforms language with its unique emphasis and tonal nuances. Unlike direct statements, litotes invite readers into a space of reflection and profound understanding. Its distinct approach sets it apart by offering a delicate balance between saying less and implying more. This article aims to explore the essence of the litotes, delineate its impact, distinguish it from other rhetorical strategies, and highlight its application in academic writing.

Litotes in a nutshell

The litreary device “litotes” is a deliberate understatement done by denying something contrary to what one means.

Definition: Litotes

The origin of the stylistic device “litotes” derives from the Greek words “λιτός” or “litos,” implying simplicity or plainness, which aligns with the rhetorical tool’s nature of understatement by using double negatives or negating the opposite, thereby implying a positive statement indirectly.

This rhetorical device allows the speaker or writer to express a thought, sentiment or statement in a subtle, often more diplomatic or modest manner. It’s a common technique in everyday language and various forms of litreature and rhetoric, enabling the conveyance of a point with understated emphasis. Typically, adding a layer of irony or intensifying the impact of what is being communicated without overtly stating it.

When it comes to academic essays, litotes should be omitted because it obscures the meaning and makes statements unnecessarily complex.

To further your understanding of litotes, below you’ll find a few examples.


  • Considering the circumstances, that’s not the worst idea you’ve had.
  • Climbing Mount Everest is not a small feat; it requires immense preparation.
  • It’s not uncommon to see snow in April in this region.

Litotes: Examples

Litotes can be found across various aspects of communication, enriching language with its understated emphasis. Here are three examples of litotes spanning different categories, including everyday life, litreature, and formal speeches, to illustrate its versatility.

In our day-to-day interactions, litotes serve as a gentle tool for softening statements, allowing us to express ourselves with modesty and diplomacy.


  • I wouldn’t say no to a slice of cake.
  • Seeing you is not unpleasant.
  • She’s not a bad singer.

English litreature and poetry frequently harness the power of litotes to add layers of meaning, subtly enhancing character descriptions and settings with understated elegance. Below, you’ll find several famous litotes used in litreature.


  • It is not a letter at all, it’s an essay. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • Cain got no good from committing that murder. (Old English poem, Beowulf)
  • He has not failed to annoy us with messages. (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Formal speeches, whether in politics, academia, or business, utilize this rhetorical tool to convey confidence and underscore achievements with a tone of measured optimism and restraint.


  • Our country’s future is not uncertain under this administration.
  • The contribution of our team has not gone unnoticed.
  • The findings of this research are not inconsequential.

In the realm of marketing, litotes are strategically employed to underscore the appeal of products and services, crafting messages that resonate with consumers by implying superiority without overt boasting.


  • You won’t be disappointed with our customer service.
  • This is not your average car.
  • Our new smartphone is not difficult to use.

Within media narratives, from news to entertainment, this litreary device plays a crucial role in shaping public perception, offering nuanced commentary that engages audiences with implied significance.


  • The event was not without controversy.
  • The artist’s album is not to be overlooked, offering a unique take on certain issues.
  • The series isn’t without its moments, capturing the audience with unexpected twists.

Litotes in common expressions

As mentioned before, this figure of speech is commonly used in daily speech; however, there are expressions that function similarly as both litotes and idioms. Some are listed below, along with their meanings.


  • This is not my first rodeo. (I’m very experiences.)
  • It’s not brain surgery. (It’s very simple.)
  • It’s not the end of the world. (It’s not as bad as it seems.)
  • Sports is not my cup of tea. (I hate sports.)
  • He’s no spring chicken. (He’s getting older.)

Litotes in other languages

Litotes can also be found in other languages. Below are two examples of this litreary device in French, Spanish, and German.


English: It’s not bad.

French: Ce n’est pas mauvais.

Spanish: No está mal.

German: Nicht schlecht.


English: I wouldn’t say no

French: Je ne dirais pas no.

Spanish: No diría que no.

German: Ich würde nicht nein sagen.

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Functions refer to the intended purposes or roles that litotes serve in speech or writing. This aspect focuses on why speakers or writers strategically choose to use them. The functions are listed below.

Emphasizing modesty or humility

This type of litotes is used to downplay one’s achievements or qualities to appear modest or humble.


  • I’m not entirely without help in writing my book.
  • I’m not unfamiliar with the piano.

Softening criticism

Here, understatements are employed to deliver criticism less directly and more softly, which can make the critique more palatable.


  • He’s not the most active person.
  • The dish wasn’t exactly a culinary triumph.

Highlighting understatement

In this use, litotes dramatically understate a fact or situation to draw attention to its opposite or the extremeness of the situation.


  • It wasn’t his best day.
  • It’s not a small accomplishment.

Expressing irony or sarcasm

Utilized to convey irony or sarcasm, offering a statement that appears to understate but is understood to imply the opposite or to carry a critical tone.


  • Well, that wasn’t your brightest moment.
  • Well, that went well.


Effects pertain to the impact or outcome that litotes have on the audience or reader. The effect is about the reception and consequence of using them in communication.

While they can be conceptualized separately for analytical purposes, in practice, the function of a rhetorical device like litotes is closely tied to its effect on communication and interpretation.

Below, you’ll find a list showing the purpose, and the achieved effect of understatements with examples.

Effect Litotes Actual meaning
Shows the receiver that the speaker expresses modesty without boasting. I'm not unfamiliar with this topic. I am knowledgeable about this topic.
Sounds a lot more acceptable to the receiver. It isn't my cup of tea. I don’t like it.
Makes the receiver take special note by understating its presence or impact. He's not a bad singer. He’s a good singer.
Shows the receiver disapproval without direct criticism. Yeah, I'm thrilled to work overtime. I am unhappy about working overtime.


Tropes are litreary devices that extend beyond the litreal meanings of words or phrases to convey complex ideas with greater depth and nuance. These enrich language through figures of speech that include hyperboles, irony, metaphors, and litotes, inviting deeper interpretation and engagement.

By leverageing tropes, writers, and speakers can evoke vivid imagery, stir emotions, and subtly influence perceptions, making language more dynamic and expressive. Below, we will show you examples of the most commonly used tropes, and their meanings, together with examples.

Understatement or double negation, so the opposite of a hyperbole, often used to emphasize something in a reserved or indirect manner.


  • He’s actually not that bad at football.

A euphemism is a polite, mild, or indirect expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh.


  • Using “passed away” instead of “died” to soften the statement.

A dysphemism describes the use of a derogatory or unpleasant term instead of a pleasant or neutral one, often to shock or offend. It is the antonym of euphemism.


  • Referring to a car as a “rust bucket” instead of calling it “old” or “vintage.”

A rhetorical question is a question asked for effect or to make a statement rather than to gain insight.


  • Asking “Is the sky blue?” when the obviousness of the answer is used to make a point.

A cliché is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.


  • Saying the overused phrase “at the end of the day” to conclude an argument.

A hypophora is a rhetorical device in which the speaker poses a question and then immediately answers it. This technique is used to raise a question and deliver a thoughtful response, guiding the audience’s understanding or emphasizing a point.


  • What do we stand for? We stand for justice, equality, and freedom for all.

litreary combinations

Litotes, when combined with other litreary devices, can enrich the depth of language, offering nuanced ways to convey meaning, tone, and emphasis. Here are several combinations of understatements with other litreary devices, along with examples for each.

Litotes & metaphor

Combining litotes with a metaphor allows for the understated expression of ideas through imaginative comparisons, enhancing the subtlety and richness of the message.


  • He’s not unlike a lion in battle, quietly fierce.
  • Her words are not unlike a soothing balm, gently healing.

In the first example, the litotes “not unlike” softens the comparison, while the metaphor compares a person to a lion to imply bravery and ferocity.

In the second example, the use of the double negative “not unlike” combined with the metaphor “soothing balm” subtly emphasizes the comforting effect of her speech.

Litotes & irony

Litotes used in combination with irony can create a sophisticated layer of meaning, where the ironic understatement contrasts sharply with the expected or litreal meaning, often producing a humourous or critical effect.


  • Losing all your savings in one day is not the best financial strategy.
  • Winning the lottery and forgetting to claim the prize isn’t exactly unlucky.

In the first example, “not the best” is an understatement for a disastrous outcome, used ironically to criticize a poor decision.

In the second example, “isn’t exactly unlucky” ironically downplays the severe misfortune of the situation, highlighting the absurdity.

Litotes & hyperbole

The combination of litotes and hyperbole involves pairing understatement with exaggeration to create a striking contrast or to intensify the effect of the statement.


  • Saying he’s a bit of a sports enthusiast is like saying the ocean isn’t dry.
  • She’s not unfamiliar with the library, visiting as often as the sun rises.

In the first sentence, “isn’t dry” understates the obvious truth about the ocean, while “a bit of a sports enthusiast” is an understatement for extreme passion, creating a humourous exaggeration of his interest in sports.

In the second sentence, the understatement “not unfamiliar” combined with the hyperbolic frequency “as often as the sun rises” emphasizes her regularity in visiting the library.

Litotes & simile

When these two rhetorical devices are used, the similar comparison made by the simile is nuanced by the understatement, allowing for a delicate and often more relatable expression.


  • Her cooking is not unlike eating at a five-star restaurant, as comforting as home.
  • His patience with students is not unlike a saint, calm as a serene lake.

In the first phrase, the double negative “not unlike eating at a five-star restaurant” subtly praises her cooking skills, while the simile “as comforting as home” adds a personal, relatable touch.

In the second example sentence, the comparison of his patience to a saint, moderated by “not unlike,” and further compared to “a serene lake” using a simile, emphasizes his remarkable patience in a layered, vivid manner.

Litotes vs. meiosis

Litotes and meiosis are both figures of speech used to convey an understatement, but they accomplish this by using slightly different mechanisms and serve distinct purposes in rhetoric and litreature.

A meiosis is a rhetorical device that deliberately understates, minimizes or diminishes the importance or magnitude of something, often for ironic purposes or to downplay a situation. Unlike litotes, which negates the opposite, meiosis directly minimizes the subject without necessarily employing negation.

Common litotes typically imply a positive assertion indirectly, whereas meiosis tends to downplay or belittle its subject more straightforwardly.

Below are several examples of meiosis, that clearly show the difference.


  • Calling a devastating hurricane “a bit of wind”
  • Describing a renowned painting like the Mona Lisa as “a decent doodle”
  • Referring to a million dollars as “pocket change”
  • Calling a broken leg “a scratch”
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It is a figure of speech that uses a form of understatement for emphasis. For example, somaeone might say to you that they “don’t not like your cooking.” The double negative would indicate that they do like your cooking, but want to be subtle about it, instead of directly complimenting your food.

Another word for it is an understatement. It articulates something negatively but is intended to express something positive. The antonym would be the hyperbole, which is an exaggeration.

It is often used to soften criticism, avoid an issue, or showcase a humourous understatement in English phrases.