The aim of this blog is to serve as a meeting point to those who study or have studied English philology and, more broadly, to all those who love literature and language.

17 Dec 2008


The other day I discovered that litotes and irony are opposed figures of speech. Maybe all of you already knew it, but to me it was a surprise and for about five minutes I felt very proud of myself. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, a litotes is a figure of speech by which an affirmation is made indirectly by denying its opposite, as in He´s not a bad singer. On the other hand, according to the same source, an irony is a figure of speech in which one thing is said but the opposite is meant, e.g. the statement What a nice weather you have here!, said when you are visiting that friend of you who lives in the City of London.
So, the two figures of speech are opposed to one another. Interesting, but when things get really interesting is when we realize that these figures of speech can appear mixed up in the same statement, as it happens in this example:
- And now, all I need to launch my new business is just one million €.
- One million €, you said? Well, it won´t be difficult for you to get it.
Here the statement it won´t be difficult for you to get it is a litotes because affirms something denying its opposite and at the same time is an irony because what the second speaker means (that is the deep structure) opposes to what he actually says (the surface structure).
Now an open question to which I couldn´t find an answer: Is the term ‘unusual’ a litotes in itself? And if so, can the statement ‘is not unusual’ (as in the lyrics of the famous Tom Jones´ song) be considered a double litotes?
In case you are interested in study the original source of the example, here it is. By the way, did you ever notice how difficult it is to think in any linguistic problem while you are listening to Tom Jones singing?


  1. I think the English are not particularly averse to litotes, or understatement. And to irony as well, and as you note they may be combined in curious ways. Both are ways of getting your point across in a way which is unobtrusive and detached, a kind of deference to social propriety, although of course the venom can be all the more effective under the polish once you get to master the appropriate register: it's also a mark of class (I should have said the middle-class and higher-class English people, the 'official culture'). The working class and the marginal cultures may be expected to take a distance. So Tom Jones, who is Welsh, says "it's not unusual" for people to have social intercourse (respect for social proprieties) - but then he expresses his feelings (or his character's feelings) when he adds irony and sarcasm to litotes, saying that "it's not unusual to see me crying" when you "have intercourse" with everyone...

  2. From a linguistic point of view, I don't see litotes and irony as opposite terms but as rhetoric figures in different parameters. On the one hand, litotes relies on form (it requires a negation) and semantics (the negative form allows a range of nuances in the meaning that is understated). Thus, if we say 'He is a good singer', we are acknowledging someone's quality in a more definite way than if we say 'He is not a bad singer', which could mean 'average', 'mediocre', 'good', excellent', etc. The extra meaning that speakers might give to one of those expressions in context would belong to pragmatics and would vary according to situation.

    On the other hand, I understand irony as a mere pragmatic device. Regarding form, it can adopt any syntactical form and, semantically, the ironic expression will have a conventional meaning in discordance with the speaker's intention.

    If so, a single expression can enclose both figures, as in the example that you provide.

    Regarding your question, whether the adjective 'unusual' could constitute litotes in itself, I don't know what to say. I'd say yes if the meanings of 'it is not usual' and 'it is unusual' were the same but I see a difference: in the first example we could interpret it as 'it happens quite often/sometimes' but I think the second one only allows a meaning similar to 'it is rare'.

  3. Wouldn´t you say that ‘He´s not a bad singer at all!’ is quite near to the meaning of ‘He´s a good singer!’? I think that in semantics we always must allow for a certain amount of individual discrepancy. And the meaning of ‘usual’ and ‘unusual’ should be opposed, at least theoretically. So, ‘unusual’ is, technically speaking, ‘not usual’.
    Juan F.

  4. Yes, the meanings of an affirmation and the negation of its opposite are quite close but, normally, not equivalent.

    I see a difference in both the examples you mention. I'll try to explain it by stating three stages in the meaning continuum that goes from an idea to its opposite.

    If I choose ‘He is a good singer’, I’m clinging to the first meaning; if I negate the third one ‘He is not a bad singer’, I leave the meaning interpretation to ‘good’ and ‘ordinary’, for an instance.

    USUAL (happening very often) > (happening sometimes) > UNUSUAL (happening rarely)

    Going back to Tom Jones’ song, ‘It's not unusual to be loved by anyone’, we could cross out ‘unusual’ from the options above; if he had sung ‘it is usual to be loved by someone’, we should restrict the options to the idea of habitual, normal.

    The affirmative expressions tend to be more precise and direct whereas the negative choices in these cases allow ambiguity, indirectness and, sometimes, irony.

  5. Yes, you are right. In a perfect world! Wouldn´t it be nice that we all were driven by cold logic and linguistic correctness? Sadly, in the real world people, especially young people, don´t use middle categories when they want to qualify something, anymore. Now everything is ‘terrible’ or ‘terrific’. We live in an age of superlatives. And we use figures of speech to emphazise something that is above or below the midlevel. So if someone says that “Tom Jones isn´t a bad singer”, I understand that he, or she, considers that the Tiger of Wales is a good singer. An opinion, by the way, that I do share.
    Juan F.