Litotes! The Grandest Understatement of Them All

Litotes is one the funnest literary tools in a writer’s arsenal. Not only is common in everyday use, in many instances, it adds the deadpan humor needed to make something work. But what exactly is litotes, you say?

What is Litotes?

Litotes is a figure of speech using an ironic understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary. Litotes is used to make an understatement denying the opposite of what is actually meant. For example, instead of saying “He is very smart,” one might say “He is not unintelligent.”

How to pronounce Litotes?


When do writers use Litotes?

Writers use Litotes when they want to effectively communicate an idea. It is effective because it forces the reader to slow down and consider the meaning of the words, making it more memorable. While often used for emphasis, Litotes can also be humorous.

Litotes in Everyday Language

While you might not realize, most people use litotes at least once every day and do not even realize it. You may hear the weatherman say,

It’s not the best weather today,”

or you might say something like,

He isn’t the friendliest person.”

Something we hear all the time but is actually one of the most classic examples of litotes is, “not bad” which can stand alone or be used as part of a larger sentence. Other, more common examples include,

He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed,”

Or you might remark after a particularly stressful interview,

I’m pleasantly surprised how well that went.

Litotes in Literature 📚

As evidenced by the selected samplings of the writer’s work, litotes is an age-old device that does not discriminate. Litotes pops up almost anywhere, but one of its earliest uses dates to the earliest of times.

In this selection from Beowulf, the author describes a dull sword that Beowulf must use to defend himself. While the author says the sword was not useless, he means it might as well have been but that it was still of some use to the hero.

Beowulf, 6th century –

“[Beowulf] raised the hard weapon by the hilt,angry and resolute — the sword wasn’t useless to the warrior

Known for dry humor and literary tactics, in this example, Austin uses litotes to drastically understate the man in question’s wealth. What she is saying is that he is incredibly wealthy.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austin –

Elizabeth Bennett: “He looks miserable, poor soul.”Charlotte Lucas: “Miserable he may be, but poor he most certainly is not.

And taking a turn to the dark side, the narrator’s statement pulled from J.D, Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is  hardly accurate or optimistic. 

“It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”

What this statement means to say is it’s actually quite a big deal, one that requires dangerous surgery.

Litotes in Children Literature 🧸

Surprisingly, you can find quite a few instances of litotes in children’s literature should you care to take a look.

For example, in the classic Lewis Carroll tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice says, “I’m not exactly in a merry mood,” but what she means to say is that she is in a terrible mood,

Also, the more we delve, it seems that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has more to offer than the wizarding world itself. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hagrid says, “I’m not sayin’ he’s harmless,” but what he is really saying, rather demurely, is that Fluffy, the three-headed dog, is actually very dangerous.

And to wrap up, our last example is that of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory whenGrandpa Joe says, “It’s not exactly a palace” when it’s obvious he means the factory is run-down in appearance and does seem at all luxurious.

Litotes in Poetry ✍🏽

As we dive into an exploration of litotes in poetry, identification of the tool’s use becomes a little more difficult and oftentimes, much harder to explicate, particularly when dealing with Shakespeare.

However, this short bit from “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot is fairly easy to understand. While the narrator says whatever is ailing him is “no great matter,” the reader can tell from the toll it has taken on his body that it is, in fact, a very serious matter.

“But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter

And Shakespeare, oh, Shakespeare! While examples from this famous poet can be quite difficult to unpack, the selection is not overly difficult. Sonnet 116, Shakespeare writes,

“Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come”

But what he is saying is that love is not fickle or changed by time. Rather the contrary. He is saying love is steadfast and true and remains unchanged, even in death.

Litotes in Film 🎥

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) – 

“Tis but a scratch…I’ve had worse.”

While they make it seem like the injury is no big deal, his arms are falling off before the sentence is even finished.

Famous Movie Dialogue highlighting Litotes

One of the most classic examples of litotes used in film occurs in the cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). In the scene, Ferris Has Been Sick Absent 9 Times, the school dean advises his mother, “Are you also aware that Ferris does not have what we consider an exemplary attendance record?” But see for yourself.

Litotes related literary devices 👥

  • Irony – A form of figurative language in which words are used to convey a meaning that is opposite the literal meaning of what was said. Irony usually