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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  • Marla4

    The kitchen is a no-smoke zone but that doesn’t stop Grandma,
    who keeps her Virginia Slims in a gold case covered in rhinestones. She’s watching Mama, who looks as if she’s
    choreographed her routine: stir, step to refrigerator, close door with hip,
    return to stove, stir.

    Up the walk comes Aunt Sue, who’s carrying a can of Del Monte
    green beans and a six pack of Cokes. She’s
    wearing a leopard print swing coat, heels that make her teeter and too much red
    lipstick. One her head is a pilgrim’s
    hat, the kind the men wore, not the bonnet, and it looks as if the wind might
    take it any minute.

    My grandma looks out the window and says. “Sue walks like a pig on concrete.” She leans across the sink to blow smoke out
    the window and waves at Sue, who lifts the green beans and wiggles them in the
    air.

    It is just us this year.
    The women of the Tyree clan, if you count me as a woman. I’m fourteen.
    My daddy left after Halloween. He drives
    a big rig for Walmart, but I’m not sure it’s his job keeping him away. When I ask Mama why he’s not come back, she
    says, “Daddy’s on a time-out, honey.”

    “Did he do something bad?” I ask.

    “I don’t know?” Mama says.
    “Are waitresses bad?”

    I’ve never been able to keep up with Mama. She answers me with
    questions much of the time. And she has
    this laugh that turns to a squeal, and sometimes that turns into a cry.

    Aunt Sue sweeps in and covers Grandma in one of her clingy hugs
    that last too long and embarrass all of us.

    “Lord, Sue, I ain’t dying,” Grandma says, and Sue turns pink.

    “You’re no spring chicken,” Sue says, offended like she gets a
    lot.

    “Neither are you,” Grandma says, and the air goes still.

    “Y’all sit down and get along,” Mama says, and so they do,
    Grandma smoking and Aunt Sue filling up tall glasses with Coke.

    “Where’s Bud?” Aunt Sue asks, although I can’t imagine she doesn’t
    know Daddy won’t be here, and Mama says, “On the road, like Kerouac,” and she
    laughs until the tears start, though nobody acknowledges the crying.

    And then my Grandma says, “More like On the Road Again.”

    Sue scrunches up her face, a confused look, and so Grandma
    adds. “Willie Nelson.”

    I set the table and go wash my face. It’s too warm this year, 75 degrees, another
    wrong thing.

    We’re all light eaters, so we sit and move food around on our
    plates, picking at the rolls, making hills with the dressing.

    “The homeless would love to have a meal like this,” Aunt Sue
    says.

    My mama says, “If they’d come work the dishes, they could have
    all of it.”

    Grandma is sitting in Daddy’s place. She’s pulled her silver flask from her purse
    and is pouring it into her iced tea.

    “Wade run off once,” she says. “When you and Sue were six and
    seven. Found a woman in Tulsa who acted
    like he was sent from heaven. Hell, she
    was a fool. They shacked up for most of
    a year, until she run across another guy who knew the difference between ‘seen’
    and ‘saw’. Had the nerve to call and
    tell me she was sending Wade back. My
    consolation prize. When he showed up he said, ‘I seen how unhappy you were
    without me.’ And I drew my hands up into
    little fists and I smiled through my teeth and I let him back in.”

    “You’re telling me this why?” Mama said.

    “Because Bud is sitting down at the Wayside Inn, eating a turkey
    sandwich today, hoping to come home and be with his family. He’s not the worst man in town, Libby, and he’s
    not the first to go chasing after a silly woman with a bad reputation and a
    good figure.”

    The news hit me hard. Daddy
    was in town, and shunned, and apparently an adulterer. I looked over at Mama, who had the wishbone
    in a choke hold.

    “If he showed up,” she said, “I might listen. I’d want him to know how much attention I’ve
    been getting since he’s been gone. Tell
    him about Bobby Stone, who came out to fix the cable and told me I looked like
    a model. Tell him Henry Thackery has
    been bringing us firewood and not charging a dime.”

    Grandma rose from her chair, a little too fast, and the table
    rang out, the silver and crystal like instruments in a symphony. I heard her dial the phone, the whirling
    sound it made, and I listened as she said, “Hello Bud. Oh, fine as frog’s hair. Yes, yes, they miss you. Course Libby’s been getting a lot of
    attention…”

    Aunt Sue reached out and covered Mama’s hand with hers. They looked so much alike you could have
    interchanged them. Mama reached over and
    took mine.

    “Always praise the Lord,” she said, tears pooling now in her
    blue eyes.

    “I will,” I said, unsure of where this was going.

    A look passed between them, between my mama and aunt, and I felt left out, the way you do when your friends are whispering right in front of you.

    Aunt Sue chimed in. “And
    never, ever trust a man.”

    They laughed then, and it turned soon enough into
    hysterics. Grandma waved them down. Daddy was still on the line, about to be
    reeled back in, just waiting for the go sign to come back home.

    • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

      This is phenomenal Marla. I love that you managed to get in a complete story for today’s prompt. Great practice!

      • Marla4

        I’m so glad you like it. I’m a BIG fan of your work.

        • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

          Well thank you very much. That means a lot to me. I would say I’m your fan as well :)

    • Marianne

      Wonderful Marla. I can particularly picture Aunt Sue wiggling her can of greens, name brand no less, in the air. She kind of sound like the aunt of my x-husband who was named Norah. I like the ending too. Thanks.

    • catmorrell

      I love these characters and all the code speak. I hope they are part of a WIP that you will publish.

  • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

    They came like elephants to water, giant and rumbling, making a mess of the kitchen as elephants would. Five grown men of various ages, not one of them tiny by any definition. The leader of the pack was a bald man with a long goatee he liked to tie into bulbs with twisty ties. Arthur called him Mr. Stone to start and then Dave for the first three years he had dated Arthur’s mother. Now he called him “Pops” like everyone else.

    In the beginning it had been just Arthur, his brother Robert, and their mother. Fathers weren’t common in the MacDougald household. Arthur’s bit the bullet when he was very young, and his brother’s dad ran off with another woman. It was six years before either man uncrossed their fingers and accepted that Dave wasn’t going anywhere and neither was his brood.

    The Stone boys were not unlike mountains. Arthur and Robert themselves being on the meeker side of the male spectrum, it was difficult for either of them to grasp the blunt nature of communicating with the giants. This would be their eighth year together and despite everything, Arthur was excited at the chance to learn more of his step-siblings’ bravado-infused exploits.

    Arthur’s mother was a short woman, made mouse-small by the not-so-tiny stature of her long-term boyfriend. When she smiled, every man in the room, Stone or MacDougald, felt their heart warm. She set the table, placing each fork and knife delicately atop an orange cloth napkin, folded into a triangle before each seat. The dining room was as much her domain as the rest of the house, intimately designed to fit her every need and desire. She brought home the money and she paid the bills. No one questioned that Arthur’s mother was the head of the household.

    When his mother clapped her hands, Arthur and the rest of the men in the house gathered up the individual dishes they had each made this year and brought them to the long table. With each dish placed on thick pads to keep them from burning holes in the rich mahogany finish and everyone at their seat, Arthur’s mother smiled, waved a hand over the table and said, “Happy Mabon everyone and let’s eat.”

    • Marla4

      The first sentence is gorgeous. I’d love to steal it but I’d suffer from guilt. Your writing is so vivid. I just fall into it. The ending was a great surprise. Love this.

      • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

        Thanks so much for all the kind words, Marla. I’m glad you enjoyed it and feel free to snatch whatever metaphors and similes and litotes you like, we all do it ;)

    • marianne

      This is great Jeff. I had to look up what Mabon was but now I know. I like the description of the goatee that belongs to Mr. Stone, Dave, Pops and I really like the next to last paragraph which seems to tie the story together like the mother does for the family. Thanks.

      • http://twitter.com/1stwordproblems Jeff Ellis

        Thanks Marianne, I’m glad you liked it :)

    • catmorrell

      The goddess matriarch. I love that her small stature contrasted so sharply with her ability to bring these big strong men together in unity and balance.

  • Patrick Marchand

    The kids are screaming and kidding around while the parents keep a watchful eye on them, fully enjoying the atmosphere. The totally not oversized shadow of the snoopy balloon can be seen creeping over the crowd as the head of the Macy’s thanksgiving parade marches into the streets and everybody is standing to the attention. Confetti is falling everywhere, there is a smile on everyones face and music fills every ear with a not unwelcomed ode to joy. Yes, the parade is a great success and look, you can even see the turkey car over by the street lights!
    This is Elaine Beaudoin at CBC news, showing you New York city, having a nice time.

    The young man on couch smiles as he turns the tv off and says: Those americans are a crazy bunch, Thanksgiving in november!?

  • http://twitter.com/pootlesuzie Suzie Gallagher

    What if you can cook as good as Homer Simpson and it is your turn to host Thanksgiving Dinner? What if your blesséd husband forgot to buy the turkey on the way home from work yesterday? What if you so care about all this that you have locked yourself in the en-suite and are refusing to come out, even when they use Joshua (cute nephew, three years of sweetness)?

    These were the what if’s running round Cecelia’s head as she sat in the empty bath with a bottle of Chardonnay for company. It wasn’t the mellowest of wines but it was hitting the right target, fuzzing her synaptic impulses down so she felt she could see them telling her hand to move the glass to her mouth.

    She loved this moment just before passing out when the molecules in her body separated to individual atoms before her very eyes.

  • Jordan

    Actually, the term is “litotes,” both singular and plural, i.e. LIE-tuh-teez (or LIH-tuh-teez or lie-TOE-teez), not LIE-toats. I believe it’s also a mass noun, so you wouldn’t say “a litotes” any more than you’d say “a bread” or “a furniture.” (Perhaps “an example of litotes” [and “a slice of bread”].) Those kooky Greeks.