What better way to understand litotes than by diving into a collection of handpicked litotes examples?
In this post, we’ll define litotes and show how they can add character to your writing. Not only that, but litotes are also a wordsmith’s secret weapon when they want their prose to sound more conversational.
If you’re thinking “That doesn’t sound half bad!”, then you’re already a litotes expert — and I’ll explain why in a few minutes.
So, let’s kick things off with a definition and then slide into some examples.
Litotes (pronounced lie-tuh-teez) is a figure of speech used to express an affirmative by denying its opposite. It requires the use of a negative word and an understatement.
The Truth About Litotes: Litotes are much easier to understand in practice. So if this definition made your mind short-circuit, don’t sweat it; we’ve got a ton of examples to help you grasp this literary device.
Let’s look at an example:
Pretend you’re making your first appearance as a guest interviewee on a podcast. You’re really nervous about how things will go. You’re worried that you’ll say the wrong thing or the interviewer will ask questions to which you don’t have an answer.
Despite your worries, the interview goes really, really well. You’re smooth and witty and never at a loss for words.
Your best friend calls to find out how things went, and you say “the interview wasn’t half bad.”
You used two negatives, not and bad, and combined them to make a positive statement about your experience. What you’re really saying is “the interview went much better than I expected.”
Not only that, but by understating the events, it wasn’t half bad, you emphasized how extraordinarily well things worked out for you.
Why Writers Use Litotes?
Writers use litotes for a few different reasons.
First, a litotes is one way to soften a blunt statement. For example, “He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed” is a milder and perhaps kinder way of saying someone is not very smart.
Sometimes, litotes emphasize the positive in a situation like our above statement about the interview that wasn’t half bad.
Instead of saying “I’m pleasantly surprised by how well it went”, the litotes “wasn’t half bad” emphasizes that the interview went much better than you imagined.
Writers also use litotes to mimic the informal way we talk in real life. And because litotes are so common in our everyday language, using them in writing makes characters more relatable.
And then there’s the “snark effect” — where litotes can help add some biting humor to a scene.
Suppose one character brags to another about how well they’re doing in a painting class. The second character might come back with “That may be, but you’re still no Picasso.”
24 Litotes Examples From Literature, Pop Culture & Everyday Language
Here are some common examples of litotes in literature, pop culture, and everyday English language. Feel free to borrow from our examples or use them to kickstart your creativity.
Examples of Litotes From Literature
1. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot
What they say:
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;
What they mean: He’s an ordinary man, yet his ruminations have a significant impact.
2. Sonnet 116 by William Shakespeare
What they say:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
What they mean: Scholars disagree on his exact meaning, but essentially Shakespeare doesn’t want to interfere with two people who belong together.
3. From The Iliad by Homer
What they say:
Once he’s led you to Achilles’ hut,
that man will not kill you—he’ll restrain
all other men. For he’s not stupid,
blind, or disrespectful of the gods.
He’ll spare a suppliant, treat him kindly.
What they mean: There’s no reason for King Priam to fear Achilles. Achilles is fair, reasonable, and intelligent.
4. From Beowulf, author unknown
What they say:
[Beowulf] raised the hard weapon by the hilt,
angry and resolute — the sword wasn’t useless to the warrior.
What they mean: The warrior could use his sword.
5. Jeremiah 30:19 The Bible
What they say: And out of them shall proceed thanksgiving and the voice of them that make merry: and I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will also glorify them, and they shall not be small.
What they mean: The Jewish people will be many and large in number.
6. From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglas
What they say: “It was not uncommon for the slaves to argue amongst themselves.”
What they mean: The enslaved people fought with each other regularly.
7. From Abigail Adams to John Adams in personal correspondence.
What they say: “I can not say that I consider you to be kind to the ladies.”
What they mean: You’ve didn’t do right by the women, John. I’m not happy with you.
Examples of Litotes From Pop Culture
8. From Aladdin
What they say: “This is no ordinary lamp.”
What they mean: It’s a magical lamp.
9. From Beauty and the Beast
What they say: “True, that he’s no Prince Charming.”
What they mean: He’s not handsome like the typical prince, but there’s something about him.
10. From Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
What they say:
Elizabeth Bennett: “He looks miserable, poor soul.”
Charlotte Lucas: “Miserable he may be, but poor he most certainly is not.”
What they mean: He’s plenty wealthy.
11. From Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”
What they say: Are you also aware, Mrs. Bueller, that Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record?”
What they mean: Ferris has problems getting himself to school.
12. From Monty Python and the Holy Grail
What they say: “Tis but a scratch…I’ve had worse.”
What they mean: Nothing to worry about here…as his arm falls off.
13. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
What they say: “It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
What they mean: No big deal. I just have to get surgery to remove this tumor. (Never mind that it’s not true.)
14. No Ordinary Love by Sade
What they say:
“This is no ordinary love
No ordinary love
This is no ordinary love
No ordinary love.”
What they mean: Our love is more special than anyone else’s love.
Examples of Litotes From Everyday Language
15. That’s not a bad effort for your first try.
Meaning: Good job. Keep going.
16. New York is no ordinary city.
Meaning: New York is a remarkable city.
17. It’s a good thing you’re not a slow runner.
Meaning: Glad you got out of the way before that car ran you over.
18. You’re not wrong about that.
Meaning: You’re right.
19. It is not uncommon for bloggers to have many blogs.
Meaning: Successful bloggers often run multiple websites.
20. The apple doesn’t fall from the tree.
Meaning: Your children are going to inherit your worst traits.
21. Boiling water isn’t rocket science.
Meaning: It’s easy to boil water – for most people.
22. That wasn’t her first rodeo.
Meaning: She obviously knew what she was doing.
23. Your father doesn’t have the best sense of direction.
Meaning: We’re always getting lost on these road trips because your father doesn’t know where he’s going, and he refuses to stop and ask for directions.
24. That dog is none too bright.
Meaning: It’s a good thing he has humans to look after him ‘cause he’s not very smart.
Litotes vs. Understatement
When it comes to figurative language, litotes and understatement are often confused.
Understatement is a statement that seems to imply the opposite of its literal meaning.
We often use understatements in irony or sarcasm.
For example, “It’s not a big deal” may mean that it is actually a very big deal, and “I’m not feeling well” may mean the person feels terrible and is in pain.
Litotes is different from understatement because it uses an affirmative to deny their opposite. In contrast, understatement uses a negative term to deny something.
A litotes would be “I’m not feeling too bad today”, meaning you are, in fact, feeling very good.
Litotes vs. Double Negative
Litotes is also confused with a double negative.
Double negative uses two negative terms, but they cancel each other out, resulting in a positive statement.
“I don’t want none of those peaches” means that you really do want some peaches. When you say you “don’t want none”, the grammar of the statement indicates you do want some.
Litotes occurs when one negative word is replaced with an affirmative word to create a positive effect. Instead of saying “I’m good”, you say “I’m not bad.”
Which Litotes Example Was Your Favorite?
Litotes can be a challenging concept to grasp, but these litotes examples will help you understand how you can use them — and other literary terms — in your writing.
Litotes make your work more interesting and relatable to readers. Whether your next writing project is a blog post, a short story, some gushy poetry, adding litotes is an excellent way to spice up your prose — or even just everyday conversation.
Tell me, what’s a litotes I didn’t include that would’ve made a killer example?