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The Art of Litotes and Other Powerful Devices

By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle

Litotes (Lie-Tut-Ease) is the art of understatement. Very often, it’s simple. In fact, that’s what the name actually means. It comes from a Greek word, meaning “simple.” The most common form is to negate a negative, making it positive, such as using “Not bad!” instead of “Excellent!” In his novel, 1984, George Orwell went so far as to build his newspeak language by coining new words, such has “ungood.” It’s useful in defining a character’s speech pattern, to have the character use such expressions as, “This ain’t my first rodeo,” or, “My mama didn’t raise no fools,” or “I’m no spring chicken.” If those expressions seem cliché, remember that your characters are allowed to use them. They will talk however they talk. Examples in literature would include, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…”

But lest we get hung up on double-negatives, remember that those are only one manifestation. The point is understatement and if you want to be creative, you can understate in far more subtle ways. For example, Carl von Clausewitz: “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.”

Even Omar Kayyam’s, “The moving finger writes and having writ, moves on…” While it may be a metaphor, it is also the subtle understatement that the past cannot be changed.


In the vein of keeping things simple this time, tricolon is one of the most powerful devices, despite its simplicity. Maybe three times more powerful than a lot of the others, because it is based on the special mathematical properties of the number “three,” which is probably the most powerful number there is. You’ve heard people say that “things happen in threes.” They actually don’t, of course. They happen when they happen. But as humans, we often have this primal need to group things in threes. So, when we see event #1 and event #2, we psych ourselves up to recognize event #3. So strong is this urge, that if there is also an event #4, we often don’t call it #4; we call it a new event #1 and start looking for the next #2 and #3.

Tricolon literally means, three members, or three clauses.

Three is the minimum number of points required to define a plane because two points make a line, and the third stretches it laterally.

It’s no coincidence that the major religions of the western world are based on trios: Christianity has its trinity and Judaism has Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Islam has Allah, Jibril and Mohammed.

It’s the minimum number for a committee, if it’s to reach a majority decision despite vocal dissent.

Tricolon is at its core, the combining of three similar clauses to amplify the effect and create a gestalt: a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

Probably the most famous tricolon in literature is Vini, vidi, vici.

But they don’t have to be single words. They can be three objects; three principles, or three phrases.

In US history, we have Lincoln’s address: With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right. President Eisenhower, in warning against the military-industrial complex said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired…” Dorothy Parker famously said, “I require three things in a man: He must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.”

Other examples are the three deathly hallows in Harry Potter. Use tricolon to triple the power of your words.


No, not the punctuation mark. We all know what that’s for. It’s added to mark where letters were removed for a contraction; or, it’s placed either before or after the letter “s” to indicate possession.

But apostrophe is also a rhetorical term to describe when a character addresses either an inanimate object, or a character who is absent. Examples in literature include Inspector Javert calling out in the night to Valjean that he will be recaptured; Han Solo telling the Millenium Falcon (or Commander Scott telling the USS Enterprise) to “Hold together!” King Canute commanding the tide not to wet his feet.

Shakespeare’s famous apostrophe:

“Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee!”

We can all use this as a device in whatever story, poem or play we are writing, whether it’s a patient who tells her cancer that its days are numbered and she will survive; or a character speaks to a long-gone family member; a child might be calling out, “Where are you?” to a lost toy.

Rhetorical devices such as these are like the “simple machines” in physics: the lever, the inclined plane, the pulley. They are very simple to use, but they help to amplify and focus the power of your words, to help them build your story more solidly and achieve your intended purpose. You have probably used them before, even if. you might not have realized they had actual names. But once you learned about them, you began looking for them in your reading, and noticing the effects they had on the words you were drinking in. The effects they had on you, the reader, and no doubt on other readers. Never stop learning how to improve your writing.

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