4

I read it in an article and I don't understand the meaning of it. "not without some merit". From the context I guess the meaning is: there is some sense in it. However I don't find in the dictionary (vocabulary.com or thefreedictionary.com) an explanation that apt my understanding. Nor I've found an expression with "merit" that can explain it.

The article is here: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jan/03/hi-tech-silicon-valley-cult-populism

  • Generally the expression means that, while the topic/concept mentioned may have some flaws, there are some points that can be argued in its favor, or there are some aspects of it that are perhaps worth extracting and adopting. – Hot Licks Jan 10 '16 at 13:49
  • I'll add that the expression, by itself, does not carry a negative connotation, beyond the implication that the topic of discussion is not, prima facie, perfect. – Hot Licks Jan 10 '16 at 13:59
  • 1
    It's an example of litotes a rhetorical trope that makes a weak positive out of a double negative. – Mitch Jan 10 '16 at 14:13
  • @Mitch: I like your definition of litotes! Do you mind if I use it sometime? Don – rhetorician Jan 10 '16 at 18:15
  • @rhetorician if by 'my definition' you mean my my slightest of rewordings of what's in wikipedia, then go for it. If something else, then also, totally. I'm emailing you my bitcoin account now. – Mitch Jan 10 '16 at 20:48
1

From your linked article:

Uber deployed all the conventional arguments, stating – not without some merit – that the mayor acted on behalf of the taxi industry and that Uber was good for minorities.

There's more here to be confused by than the expression, "not without some merit".

The expression is used parenthetically. So you should be able to remove it from the sentence completely and decode its main meanings: the mayor took the taxi industry's side. Uber is good.

Adding "not without some merit" shows that the author agrees with Uber, at least in part.

"Not without" is a double negative that is NOT used here for emphasis. It means, "It would be wrong to say this is completely false". That's not as strong as saying "it's completely true".

1

The expression

"not without some merit"

contains a figure of speech called litotes (pronounced lī′tə-tēz′, or lĭt′ə-, or lī-tō′tēz). Litotes is a backwards way saying something positive or negative. The logic of litotes is derived from the notion that two negatives make a positive. Or as @Mitch, above, puts it, litotes is "a rhetorical trope that makes a weak positive out of a double negative."

Instead of saying

_________ has very little merit,

you can say

_________ is not without merit.

Or, instead of the strictly negative

His nonsense knows no bounds,

with litotes, you could say with a mixture of positive and negative,

Of nonsense he has no small measure. [that is, as to nonsense he possesses the opposite of a small amount, which is a large measure]

Litotes can be a slippery concept in that it is somewhat difficult to define (i.e., your ability to define it is not without difficulty), but once you've "got it," used sparingly it can add a little spice to your style of writing and/or speaking.

Instead of saying

There was a huge crowd at the protest rally,

you could say with litotes

There was no small crowd at the protest rally.

Litotes adds an element of irony to your style, and irony when used in moderation creates in your audience a certain bond which sometimes cannot be forged without it!

  • 1
    I would add that litotes is not used here just for the sake of it, to "spice things up" as if spicing were the end in itself. Rather, a very specific connotation is also (albeit weakly) implied, about the expected opinions of the reader. When I hear "not without some merit" I unpack it as "I, the writer, expect that you, the reader, might think a priori that there is no merit whatsoever [in Uber's statement]; however, consider that there might after all be some merit in it..." – jez Jan 11 '16 at 17:00
  • @jez: You'll get no argument from me! Thanks for the comment. Don – rhetorician Jan 11 '16 at 17:05
1

Litotes is when an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (OED). The OP litotes - not without some merit - suggests that the speaker thinks that the thing under discussion has some merit.

The problem with litotes is that it is not always clear why you are choosing to express yourself using a double negative. Why say "not without some merit" rather than "this has merit"?

In fact litotes often implies a subtext which requires context to be understood. Used well, it can be used effectively for a variety of purposes. For example:

to tease:

"...you didn't look completely out of place"

to reproach;

"...the fact you were drunk didn't make you useless"

to minimise impact;

"...don't worry, it wasn't the worst thing in the world"

to sound modest;

"...I'm not unfamiliar with Beethoven's music"

to highlight how preconceived notions may, in fact, be wrong;

"...this isn't a bad road"

But it is easy to use litotes clumsily and the result can make a speaker sound pompous, ridiculous and falsely modest.

  • In addition, when I hear that something is "not without some merit" I mentally anticipate but and wait for what comes next. Is that part of the intention of litres? Example: "this proposal is not without its merits, but I cannot see the wood for the trees." – English Student Mar 9 '18 at 1:19
  • @EnglishStudent - Certainly! My examples are not intended to be a comprehensive list. Litotes definitely gets used as a means of forewarning that you are about to be critical... Indeed, litotes on its own can communicate an unspoken criticism "It's not that you aren't helpful... " (understood ..."it's just that when you help you get in the way"). – Dan Mar 9 '18 at 14:29

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.