Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Avoid litotes

Litotesw has long been a particular annoyance to me: By using formulations like “X is not overly bright” to imply “X is an idiot”, a valuable means of distinguishing meaning is removed from the language: The ability to point to a complementary set (without unnecessary effort). Consider the easy to understand example of positive numbers, negative numbers, and the number zero—“not positive” means the same thing as “negative or zero”, not negative. Similarly, “not greater than one million” is the equivalent of “one million or less than one million”, not “less than one million”—let alone “less than minus one million” (which would correspond to a typical litotic use). Effectively, litotes turns the meaning of “not X” into “anti X”, thereby distorting the meaning of “not” severely. (The same applies, m.m., to other words than “not” used for similar purposes, e.g. “less” in “X is less than bright”.)

This ability is something I regularly find myself wanting to use; but when I do, I run the risk of being severely misinterpreted.

I have to admit to unthinkingly using litotes myself (in particular, “not bad”), but I deliberately try to avoid it. My recommendation: Only use formulations of this kind when a logical negation is intended (respectively, the complementary set is intended); never as litotes. (Possibly, some other cases can be justified, e.g. to soften a critical remark by diplomatic understatement.)