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I've come across the word litotes, which means a rhetorical understatement. However, I’m having trouble understanding how to use it in colloquial English. Could someone please give an example?

  • The best advice on how to use the word litotes in colloquial English is don’t. It’s a very formal, technical word, and people will look at you very strange if you use it in colloquial conversations. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 18 '14 at 20:52
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Ward Farnsworth gives this definition:

Litotes (lye-tuh-teez) occurs when a speaker avoids making an affirmative claim directly and instead denies its opposite. Often this amounts to a double negative.

He gives a whole host of examples in his book Classical English Rhetoric. Here is one using the double negative:

Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best — Ben Franklin, at Federal Ratifying Convention (1787)

However, litotes does not have to involve a double negative. It may often simply refer to faint praise, "the most the speaker can offer":

She was not quite what you would call refined. She was not what you would call unrefined. She was the kind of person that keeps a parrot. — Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

It is often used simply as understatement, "a useful tool for indicating small amounts, for making a show of modesty, or for creating a tone of allowance."

"You'll be quite safe now," the curate was saying in the adjoining room, not without a touch of complacent self-approval such as becomes the victor in a battle of wits. — P. G. Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress (1919)

Let's take something more recent now, from a car campaign by General Motors trying to revive a failing brand by using litotes in an ad slogan to suggest a heroic understatement:

This is not your father's Oldsmobile.

Meaning? What you thought was a stodgy brand is now thoroughly revamped and revived, enough so that young people will find it exciting. The "not your father's X" (or grandfather's X, etc.) slogan has become a familiar trope, and is used in many similar constructions nowadays.

Addendum It is worth noting that George Orwell famously had a problem with the "not un-" construction. Your mileage may vary.

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    Litotes is hardly a word I expect to hear come up often in my own colloquies, nor in those around me. :) – tchrist Nov 23 '12 at 21:58
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    @tchrist: I wouldn't say that is not unsurprising. – Robusto Sep 2 '15 at 14:40
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The wikipedia page has lots of the standard examples. Statements like "this is a not inconsiderable problem."

  • Double Negatives such as the one in your example are what I often see when people are explaining Litotes. When I first learned about it, I seem to remember also being told that it involved use of adverbs like so: Only $5m! Here, by using 'only', we imply that 5m is a small amount. Am I right to call this Litotes? – Karl Apr 22 '11 at 8:08
  • @Karl: The double negatives seem to be most common, but my understanding is that examples like yours are also considered litotes. – Henry Apr 22 '11 at 18:22
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From a quick search of the site:

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I could imagine if you say "That was meant as a litotes" to a girl the girl would understand it as a word for compliment and say "Thanks for the compliment". Well, I wouldn't use such special terms of rhetorics in a normal conversation.

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