Difference Between Litotes and Understatement

Main Difference – Litotes vs Understatement

Litotes and understatement are both forms of speech that involve downplaying the characteristics of something. Understatement involves minimizing the importance of something and Litotes is a special kind of understatement which involves expressing a positive sentence using its negative form. This is the main difference between litotes and understatement.

What is Understatement

An understatement is a form of speech that minimizes the significance of something. It is a restrained phrase or sentence which does not elaborate the seriousness or gravity of a situation. In fact, it can be said that understatement is the opposite of exaggeration. For instance, imagine that there is a deep wound in your friend’s arm, and it’s bleeding profusely. But he or she says that it’s just a scratch. This is an example of an understatement. Understatement is used by many writers to create emphasis, irony or humor. In day to day life, we can use understatement to make someone feel better, or to play down the seriousness of something. Given below are some examples of understatement.

When the temperature is unbearable, and you are sweating profusely, you say that it’s a bit warm.

Your friend is a terrible dancer, and everyone seems to be laughing at her, but you say she’s got a unique style.

“I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”

 – The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

BENVOLIO: What, art thou hurt?
MERCUTIO: Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.
ROMEO: Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much.
MERCUTIO: No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat to scratch a man to death!

       -Romeo and Juliet by William ShakespeareDifference Between Litotes and Understatement

What is Litotes

Litotes is a special form of understatement where a positive statement is expressed by a negative statement. In other words, we talk about a concept or object by describing the qualities it doesn’t have. For instance, we say ‘not bad’ when we want to say ‘good.’ Similarly,

I’m not as young as I was – I’m old.

He is not bad to look at – He is handsome

She was not unfamiliar with the area – She is familiar with the area

She is not unintelligent – She is intelligent

Given below are some examples of litotes in literature.

“By the wall then went he; his weapon raised

high by its hilts the Hygelac-thane,

angry and eager. That edge was not useless

to the warrior now.”


“I am not unaware how the productions of the Grub Street brotherhood have of late years fallen under many prejudices.”

-Jonathan Swift, A Tale of a Tub

And I’m thinking you weren’t burdened with an over-abundance of schooling, so why don’t we just ignore each other until we go away? 

Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly

Main Difference - Litotes vs Understatement

It didn’t rain much.

Difference Between Litotes and Understatement


Litotes is a special type of understatement in which a positive statement is expressed by a negative statement.

Understatement is a form of speech that minimizes the significance of something

Relation to other literary devices

Litotes are a type of understatement.

Understatement is the opposite of exaggeration.


Litotes is mainly used for emphasis, and discretion.

Understatement is used for emphasis or for ironic or humorous effect.Difference Between Litotes and Understatement - infographic

Image Courtesy:

Romeo and Juliet Act III Scene I The Death of Mercutio Romeo’s Friend By Edwin Austin Abbey –  (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

Hanoi – after the rain By haithanh – originally posted to Flickr as [1], (CC BY 2.0) via Commons Wikimedia

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