It’s not bad. (Emphasizing with negatives in English)

by Kate Woodford
A figure of speech that we often use in English is the understatement. An understatement is a statement that describes something as less important, serious, bad, etc. than it really is. There are two main uses for understatements. The first is to be polite:

The colour looks great on you but I think the jacket’s perhaps a bit tight?

(The speaker here does not want to tell their friend that they are too fat for the suit so ‘softens’ the adjective ‘tight’ with the phrase ‘a bit’.)

The other main use of the understatement is actually to emphasize a point, often in a way that is humorous.

A: I seem to recall Sophie quite likes talking.

B: Ha, yes! That’s something of an understatement.

(We can assume from speaker B’s response here that Sophie never stops talking.)

This week we’re looking at a particular type of understatement called litotes /laɪˈtəʊ.tiːz/. In litotes, you state an idea by saying the opposite of what you mean, by using a negative, (‘not’ or ‘no’), before it, for example:

Your colleague, Juan – he’s not the friendliest person I’ve ever met.

It’s not absolutely clear here whether Juan was just a bit unfriendly to the speaker, or was, in fact, the least friendly person the speaker had ever met. Litotes can be quite ambiguous (= having more than one possible meaning). This is perhaps why people often use it when they are criticizing others. (They cannot be accused of being too unkind!):

He’s not exactly handsome.

She’s not the brightest child I’ve ever taught.

Charlotte’s not the best at timekeeping, it’s true.

I think it’s fair to say she’s not the most athletic of all the students.

A number of idioms and fixed phrases contain litotes. Again, many of them are used for saying negative things about people:

She’s no oil painting (= she is very unattractive).

He’s no angel (= he sometimes behaves badly).

He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed (= he is not clever).

She’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer/block (= she is not clever).

Another form of litotes involves the use of a negative word (‘no’ or ‘not’) before an adjective with a negative prefix. This use has a rather formal feel to it:

Is that a new jacket? It’s not unlike (= it is a bit like) one you already own.

She inherited a not inconsiderable (= large) sum of money.

So that was an introduction to litotes. I hope you found it not uninteresting!

22 thoughts on “It’s not bad. (Emphasizing with negatives in English)

  1. Emel

    Interesting. Personally I’d never heard of litotes. I’m not too sure how to use the word. Can I say, “that statement is an example of litotes”?

  2. katewoodford

    Hi Emel. Many thanks for your comment – I’m glad you found it interesting. The term isn’t often used so I’m not surprised you weren’t familiar with it. The example you give sounds perfect. Kate

  3. Juan Carlos

    Hi! I’m learning upper-intermediate English and I must say that I find all this information quite helpful. Thanks a lot.

  4. This figure of speech is especially rich in its possibilities.My favorites, both referring to people who don’t seem to understand what is happening around them, are “The elevator does not run to the top floor” and “The lights are on, but no one is at home.”

  5. Lesley Pearson

    My partner and I are having a debate about whether you can say”He is an isolate”” meaning that hat he doesn’t mix with other people. I say the word does exist but he says that you can only say”He is an isolated person” or he is in isolation.
    Please put us out of our misery and let us know what you think. Thank you!
    Lesley…..and Ian

    1. Soap Dodger

      The word ‘isolate’ is a verb, so you cannot refer to someone as ‘an isolate’. However, you can say, “He is isolated”.

    2. Hi Lesley, the noun ‘isolate’ does exist, meaning approximately ‘a reclusive person’, but it is not in common usage. You would probably find it in a large, native-speaker dictionary. I hope that helps. Kate

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