Submitted by tom  •  March 26, 2009

Speaking with negations

What is the reason that I often hear educated people (and so much of the old research material I’m using) speak using negations. Many people also advise this style of speech/writing.

I’m referring to things like “Not dissimilar from...” or “Not unfriendly...”

Why?

I can understand in some situations where a thing is not binary; if it is not A that does not mean it is B. However, I have heard it used for some things that just seem utterly stupid. I mean on the level of “The TV is not off...,” it can only be one other thing can’t it? Am I missing something?

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It is a figure of speech called litotes, a way of emphasizing a point through ironic understatement. It is not an error, but if someone does it a lot it can seem rather pretentious.

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Too, it adds emphasis. If you were to say, "She's not unfriendly," with an emphasis on the "un," then you would be saying something very different than "She's kind." By using the litote, you are able to signify that her kindness was, perhaps, unexpected. Or perhaps you mean to say that she was not so much kind as polite. Either way, the meaning changes, even though technically you are saying the same thing.

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As I said, the name for this figure of speech, which has been recognized by rhetoricians since ancient times, is "litotes" (pronounced "lye-toe-tees"). It is NOT a plural, it just happens to end in "s" (because it comes from the Greek word "litos"). One of them is NOT a "litote." However, like "sheep" or "fish," the plural form is the same as the singular. Thus, you can have one litotes in a passage, or several. (But too many do tend to look affected.)

However, not all double negatives are examples of litotes. It is quite true that double negatives can be useful in a situation that is not binary - where there is some neutral middle ground (as in "not unfriendly") - and in that situation they may serve as hedging, or to "soften" what is said. Those are not examples of litotes.

What was truly puzzling the original questioner (who clearly already understood those sorts of usage) were examples like "The TV is not off." There is no state of a TV between on and off; no room for hedging here. I can imagine that sentence being said, however, by, let's say, a parent to their teenaged child, to mean something like "The TV darn well ought to be off, but it is still on. Turn it of now!" This is litotes because, through irony, it actually makes a stronger statement than just "The TV is on." (Though perhaps softer than explicitly saying "It darn well ought to be off. Turn it of now!")

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I once heard someone say "It's not that I'm unintelligent, but..." and it stuck in my mind, I like it. I think it's a way of saying I'm not stupid but I don't want to sound pretentious by saying I'm smart, and also I don't want the pressure of saying I'm smart but at the same time make sure you know I'm not stupid.

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to everything already said, I'd like to add that yes, they're litotes, just slightly more awkward ones than say, "not unlike" - a phrase we're quite good and used to.

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Thanks guys.

I thought maybe there was a technical reason for it that I wasn't seeing.

When a name (litote) is put to it, I can somehow make more sense of it.

You've helped me categorize my world some more and all is once again good. :)

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Tom, you said that you can understand it in situations where a thing is not binary. Well, most situations are not binary. The type of negation you describe softens the claim specifically because it generally does include the normally excluded middle. Saying not unfriendly instead of friendly may also include neutral feeling, neither friendly nor unfriendly. Not uncaring may mean that one may care, or not care at all, but isn't actually callous. Not dissimilar may mean not completely different, but not exactly the same either, etc., etc.

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I'd call it a form of hedging. 'Not dissimilar' is significantly weaker than 'similar,' but when parsed, should be synonymous, right?

It would be interesting to compare it to another Germanic language, with a similar construction, but with significantly less hedging (at least in this type of academic speech).

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Also what Nigel said. I can imagine the exasperated parent saying, "I don't care what's ON the TV. I care that it is NOT OFF!"

But also that what others said. Litotes for emphasis, possibly hedging or opening up a broader meaning.... sometimes overused and pretentious. :) Broad agreement for everybody.

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Thanks again everyone. And Nigel, I appreciate the clarification on the singular/plural issue. D'oh.

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