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Rhetorical devices: Litotes - examples & definition

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Litotes is about saying the opposite of what you mean. Well . . . not quite, but sort of.

It applies a negative to the opposite of what you want to say in order to emphasise something. It's normally used when you want to emphasize something in a modest or understated way, but it can be a great technique for deflecting criticism and handling objections . I'll explain how to do that in a moment, but first a few examples to fully explain what Litotes is.

We use it unthinkingly in everyday language. E.g.:

Not bad
Your'e not wrong
He's no oil painting
I'm not as young as I was
She's not the sharpest knife in the drawer
He's not the friendliest person you'll ever meet
As an option, it's not without risk
OK, I'll admit; I am not completely ignorant on this subject




You're right
He's ugly
I'm getting old
She's a bit slow
He's very unfriendly
It's risky
I'm a world expert

Here are a few examples from the great and the good:

  • "I've never been called a man of few words"- Joe Biden
  • "We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all" - Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address to the Nation
  • "I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations" - Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • "We are not amused" - Queen Victoria
  • "They are out by a factor of one million. Which is not a trivial error" - Richard Dawkins
Far side cartoon

The reason this can be powerful is that many neurologists believe the subconscious mind can't process negatives. If I say to you, "DON'T think of a pink elephant," what do you instantly do? That's right . . . you think of a pink elephant. Because you have to, before you can NOT think about it.You LOOK!

People don't remember every word you say. They pick up on the important ones; those that have some kind of emotional resonance with them. It's like the Gary Larsen Far Side cartoon showing the difference between what we say to dogs and what they hear. All Ginger is interested in is the sound of his name.

If I say "The man is NOT sleeping," the odds are you won't instantly think of a man playing baseball or going for a walk. You'll probably first think of a sleeping man before consciously changing the image to make him do something active. If someone says to you, "Don't look now, but . . .", what's the first thing you do?

If you want to lose weight and you tell yourself repeatedly, "I will NOT eat cakes!", your brain simply hears, "Eat cakes, Eat cakes, EAT CAKES!" It's far more effective to give yourself a positive instruction such as "I will eat healthier!" Instead of saying to yourself, "I will NOT smoke any more," it's better to say, "I will give up smoking."

If you tell your child, "Don't worry, there are no monsters in the closet," his brain will pick up "Worry. Monsters in the closet." It's better to say "You're safe. I'm downstairs, to protect you."

President Nixon's statement "I am NOT a crook" probably planted the thought that he was in not a few people's brains (didja see what I did there? "Not a few . . ."). They'd have picked up, "Nixon . . . crook." He'd have been better using a variant of, "I am an honest man," as Tony Blair did when being questioned in a "cash for favors" scandal (not cash to him personally, but to his party) when he said, "I'm a pretty straight kinda guy."

The same would be true with President Clinton's famous statement, "I did NOT have sexual relations with that woman . . ." He'd have been better off saying, "My relationship with Miss Lewinsky was purely platonic ..."

So . . . how can we use this to our advantage?

President Bush was pretty good at using this. A reporter once quizzed him on the negative reception given to American troops in Iraq. He could have said, "We didn't foresee the negative reaction from some sectors of Iraqi society." Instead, he said, "I think we are welcomed. But it was not a peaceful welcome." What people register is blah, blah, blah, blah, welcomed. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, peaceful welcome.

A good way to use this is when you're facing an objection or criticism from someone. You want to respond using words that have positive connotations to the audience. These will obviously vary from audience to audience, which is why you need to identify exactly what turns your audience on (see Answering "What's In It For Me?" - The Importance Of Having A Compelling Audience Benefit (C.A.B.))

If someone says, "Your proposal is expensive," you could reply with "It's not expensive when you consider what we get for the spend." The risk is the audience hears blah, blah, expensive, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, spend.

Far better is to say, "I agree it's not inexpensive, and that's because we get so many benefits in return for our investment." Now the embedded / remembered words become inexpensive, benefits and investment.

If they say your proposal is going to take too long, instead of saying "I know it's going to take longer than we expected . . . " say "I agree it's not the quickest way, but it is the most thorough and effective."

If they say your department is not achieving its targets, respond with, "I agree we're not breaking any records, but we are progressing in the right direction."

However, only use this technique very sparingly, or you'll come over as very theatrical. George Orwell, writing about the misuses of language, once suggested that a good cure for the excessive use of litotes was to memorize the following sentence: "A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field." Which is not an unclear way of making his point.

Related articles:

What is litotes?



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