In Rhetoric, What Is Litotes?

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  • Written By: Jim B.
  • Edited By: M. C. Hughes
  • Last Modified Date: 21 November 2019
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Litotes is a type of construction used in rhetoric in which the speaker makes an assertion by essentially negating the opposite of that assertion. Depending on the nature of the speech, this technique can either give emphasis to the statement or it can lend it an offhand style. Many speakers use litotes by taking the actual word they wish to use as a description and simply forming a double negative with it. The technique can also be achieved through using words similar in meaning to the word being negated and forming a double negative with these words.

Whether someone is making a formal speech to a group or is simply speaking to friends in normal conversation, it is common for rhetorical devices to be used; they spice up and add emphasis to the meaning of the words. Often, these devices are used by the speaker subconsciously because they are commonly used in colloquial speech. Litotes is one of these devices.


A person may use litotes by simply turning the word he wants to convey his meaning into a negative and then negating that negative. For example, a person may intend to say the sentence, "It is common for it to rain at this time of year in these parts." To add a twist to that sentence, he or she could say, "It is not uncommon for it to rain at this time of year in these parts." By using the negative form of "common," the sentence gains a bit of flavor.

At times, using litotes in this manner can be burdensome and awkward. For example, suppose someone wants to say, "I would allow those people in my house if they visited." It would be a bit unwieldy to say, "I would not disallow those people if they visited." On the other hand, the person could use other words with a similar meaning to convey his point. He could say, "I would not turn those people away if they visited."

There are many different ways that the use of litotes could add a little extra to a person's speech. Often, the device is used to provide some extra emphasis to the point that a person is trying to make. Used correctly, it could also provide a touch of humor or irony to the proceedings. In a certain context, it can also be used to indicate a carefree air on behalf of the speaker, as the use of the negative can occasionally lessen the impact of the statement.


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