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As part of my masters in linguistics, I am taking a course on the subject of irony. We were given examples of sentences that are most likely ironic, as the English sentence “he is not exceptionally smart” (which has the structure “he is not exceptionally X”). This does not mean literally that he is smart at an exceptional level, but rather, ironically, that he is very stupid.

Are there similar constructions in French, preferably ones that involve superlative and negation?

Here is a paper (PDF format) of my professor about the subject for those who are interested in elaboration on the subject.

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I don't understand how this is ironic. It is a direct criticism toward the subject. If I want to be ironic, I think I would rather use an antiphrasis. –  rds Apr 30 '12 at 11:36
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up vote 5 down vote accepted

Yes, constructions of the type “ce n'est pas X”, X being a superlative, are commonly used to convey irony. In particular, there is an idiomatic expression “ce n'est pas un foudre de guerre”, which is employed to mean that someone is not exactly smart, fast or powerful. It draws from the older emphatic expression “un foudre de guerre” (an extraordinary military man, or forceful man of action), which is not really used anymore except in this construct.

On the other hand, I feel that the common use of this construct robs it of its irony in many case, and is nowaday simply used as a way to express one's negative view of something without using a strong pejorative. For example, “il n'est pas très à l’heure” is somewhat more diplomatic than “he was quite late”… As another example, my 3-year old son says sentences like “ton camion il n'est pas très beau”, and though he uses it the right way, I'm not sure the irony is not lost on him.

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This rhetorical device is called litotes, and it works the same way in French as it does in English.

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