Thursday, June 2, 2011

Litote: Hyperbole's Yang

Standing before a brilliant sunset, the onlooker says, “It’s the most beautiful sunset in the history of the world!” Her companion says, smiling, “It’s okay, I guess.”

The companion’s begrudging admission that he stands before a scene of sublime beauty is an example of litote, a rhetorical strategy and the subject of this week’s post. Litote simply means that a writer or speaker deliberately understates the case in order to emphasize a point.

For example, if a laid-off, ex-CEO with 20 years experience running a Fortune 500 company said, during an interview for a new position, “I can safely say that I know a little about building a company,” then that ex-CEO has just used litote to focus the interviewer’s attention upon the experience that a CEO could bring to the job.

Sometimes, litote travels as sarcasm as in the following scenario: a young woman passes by a couple standing so close together that no one can be sure which jacket belongs to which person; the woman might say to her companion, “Looks like they like each other” deliberately understating the public display of affection (PDA).

At other times, litote seems like a back-handed compliment or a positive turned into an insult, something that Andrew Marvel does in “To His Coy Mistress” as the suitor applies pressure to the lady who would prefer to retain her virtue. He pulls out the big guns in his argument and says, with litote, that she ought to use her youth because all that awaits is rotting in a grave: The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace.

President Ronald Reagan praised his own tenure as president but downplayed it with litote so that he appeared more humble than he might otherwise have seemed, saying: We made a difference. We made the city stronger, we made the city freer, and we left her in good hands. All in all, not bad, not bad at all. (Farewell Address to the Nation, January 20, 1989)

Writing Challenge:

Use litote to draw attention to a point you wish to make while seeming to be humble rather than proud or matter-of-fact rather than judgmental.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Juno, a 1997 film that makes use of litote.



Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): More Commonly Confused Words

One pair of words that my students often confused and abused is the verb quote and the noun quotation. I must confess and warn you that the grammatical distinctions between these two words is becoming fainter and fainter as more and more people in the media use quote and quotes instead of quotations. For example:

Incorrect: You should quote an expert in the subject to lend credibility to your own argument. Search for quotes online or carefully write down word-for-word what those experts think as you complete your research.

Correct: You should quote an expert in the subject to lend credibility to your own argument. Search for quotations online or carefully write down word-for-word what those experts think as you complete your research.

When you write or speak the words of another, you quote those words. When you refer to those words that you quote, you refer to them as a quotation.

My Writing and Editing Coach is written by Connye Griffin.