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In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech in which the speaker either strengthens or weakens the emphasis of a claim by denying its opposite. The literal meaning of a litotes is "not X (but not necessarily Y)", and a litotes can be used as an understatement, actually meaning "very much Y," or to express ambivalence. Like many figures of speech, litotes is better understood in some cultural and linguistic contexts than in others.



  • "[…] no ordinary city." Acts 21:39 (NIV)
  • "That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now." (Beowulf)
  • "O Oedipus, unhappy Oedipus!" (Oedipus the King)
  • "He was not unfamiliar with the works of Dickens."
  • "The food was not bad."
  • "Reaching the moon was no ordinary task."
  • "That was no big deal."
  • "Don't fail me now!"

As a means of saying:

  • "[…] an impressive city."
  • "The sword was useful."
  • "O miserable Oedipus!"
  • "He was well acquainted with the works of Dickens."
  • "The food was good."
  • "Reaching the moon was a fantastic task."
  • "That was nothing."
  • "Help me!"

[n] understatement for rhetorical effect (especially when expressing an affirmative by negating its contrary); "saying `I was not a little upset' when you mean `I was very upset' is an example of litotes"

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