The purpose of using litotes is to make something seem less than it is (to underemphasise, downplay or understate). Litotes use the negative form eg not bad – to mean that actually it is good!
Here are some other examples:
- If the weather is terrible, instead of saying, “This is terrible weather”, you might say, “This is not the best weather.”
- If you are feeling very ill, instead of saying, “I am feeling very ill”, you might say, “I am not feeling great.”
- If you are happy about going on holiday, you might say, “I was not sad that the term was over.”
Litotes can add a light or humorous tone. And sometimes we use litotes to be polite, for example, “I wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea” is more polite than saying, “I want a cup of tea”. Or, “That man is not Mr Universe” is a less critical than “That man is weak and puny.”
So litotes use the negative form eg not bad – to mean that actually it is good!
Litotes is a kind of irony (a statement that is opposite to what is meant), but irony does not have to include the negative. Litotes always includes a negative (not).
Litotes is the opposite of hyperbole, which uses exaggeration to emphasise something or to create humour.