Litotes and lyrics on which we disagree on

Following my recent defence of double negatives, I wrote further about a particular form of multiple negation that has been popular for many centuries. In Litotes is no small matter, at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I describe this figure of speech as:

less rare than you might think – indeed, it is anything but uncommon. Litotes is used in all sorts of language varieties and contexts, from high-flown rhetoric to everyday small talk. We might reply to the greeting ‘How are you?’ with ‘Not bad’ or ‘Can’t complain.’ . . .

Litotes shows up in some familiar phrases and idioms. If we think someone should be able to do or understand something, we can say it’s not rocket science. If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let them know in no uncertain terms – a phrase that conveys the force of our disapproval. So as well as understatement, litotes can also be used for emphasis.

The post looks at other forms of litotes, such as the common not un-X construction, cites some familiar examples from pop culture, and considers its functions and range of meaning.


With pop culture on the brain, I then tackled a famous (and somewhat infamous) song lyric at which I’ve often wondered at. The line I’m interested in occurs at 0:18 and 2:06 in the video below:

The question is whether McCartney sings: this ever-changing world in which we live in, or …in which we’re livin’. In my Macmillan post This ever-changing language in which we live in, I note that the latter interpretation

would make sense, and it’s more charitable to McCartney. But it doesn’t seem to be what he sings. The we/we’re bit is ambiguous on account of his accent, but the later phrase really doesn’t sound like livin’ to me – the stress pattern is more suggestive of live in. The Guns N’ Roses cover is more unequivocally live in, and apparently it’s what appears in the original liner notes.

But even language experts disagree on what McCartney sings: Grammarphobia holds to the livin’ reading, citing (somewhat unconvincingly) a book on pop music, while David Crystal makes a strong case for live in, and writes: ‘Certainly it’s ungrammatical; but it’s not unnatural.’

Read the rest for more analysis and conjecture, including McCartney’s own ambivalence when queried about it. For older posts, see my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.


5 Responses to Litotes and lyrics on which we disagree on

  1. Marie Harris says:

    My sister, who has lived many years in Canada, often uses this phrase (meaning “God’s honest truth!”) : No word of a lie!

  2. Sean Jeating says:

    Stan, you write “If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let them know . . .”.
    I’d have written “If someone has overstepped the mark, we can let her / him know . . .”
    Where is my mistake?

    And even a bit more off topic: Hope you and those around you are well, my friend.

    • Stan Carey says:

      No mistake at all, Sean, but rather a matter of preference. I’m strongly in favour of singular they, finding it the most practical, straightforward and inclusive option in such contexts. She/he, her / him, s/he, generic he and similar alternatives I find awkward – especially in speech, or when repeated – and also too tied to a binary model of gender that excludes people who don’t identify as female or male. (Speaking of which, I’ll have a post on Mx as a gender-neutral title at Macmillan Dictionary Blog next week.)

      Thank you for the good wishes; I hope the same for all at Seanhenge.

      • Sean Jeating says:

        Ah, that does not lack of sense.
        Thanks for the explanation, Stan, and for the link. One ought not to think German when trying to speak English, eh?
        Kind regards from Seanhenge to Salthill.

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