Litotes: Understatement at Its Finest

Thanksgiving is probably one of the bigger love-it-or-hate-it holidays of the year. If family is involved, it can be either a relaxing time to stuff your face full of tryptophan, or (and this seems more common), it’s an all-hell-breaks-loose affair, with aunts fussing in the kitchen and stressing out over the meal, uncles arguing in the TV room during the football games, little cousins running around screaming their heads off because they’ve had too much pie, and the one sane man/woman sitting in the middle of the chaos trying desperately to harness some sort of chi to keep sanity alive.

Thanksgiving is a not a dull day.

That last sentence seems like a gross understatement, right? That’s what’s known as a litote. A litote is an understatement used to underscore a greater point; in this case, the point is that in most cases, Thanksgiving is absolute insanity.

litote

Example of a Litote: She’s not the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen. Photo by Andrea Floris

Double negatives can also factor into a litote. For example, if you want to say that your main character is attractive, you might describe him/her as “not hard to look at”. The statement underscores the fact that this character is, in fact, very easy on the eyes.

You can also use litotes after an elaborate description of a character’s personality or actions in order to underline their defining characteristics. For example, in Beowulf, the poet describes the wonderfully heroic and challenging actions of a king, and concludes by saying something along the lines of, “That was a good king.” The reader’s reaction, naturally, is one of, “Well, no KIDDING,” further underscoring just how great this king was.

Litotes are a heck of a lot of fun to use in writing and in everyday conversation. I’m personally fond of saying that things that I love don’t suck, instead of right out calling them great. It’s more interesting, and more fun.

PRACTICE

With Thanksgiving looming, write for fifteen minutes and describe a Thanksgiving day, using litotes throughout for emphasis. Post your practice in the comments, and check out the work of your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

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