Antonyms are words with opposite meanings. The word antonym comes from Greek and means “against a name.” There are three types of antonyms, and many words can have multiple antonyms, depending on the meaning of the original word. As literary devices, antonyms are one of the simplest to find and use.
Antonyms exist on three levels of thought. Many are just binary pairs or complementary antonyms, like these:
Other antonym pairs are relational antonyms, in which one word implies its opposite related word, even if it is not mentioned:
Words that have a sense of relation are said to have antonymy.
A third level, graded or gradable antonyms, exist along a sliding scale of meanings:
In addition to the three types, many antonym pairs come from adding prefixes that mean not or no, and these can be helpful in writing:
An antonym is a word that is the opposite of another word. Here is a list of example antonyms for you to review:
|information||ignorance, question, silence|
|definition||ambiguity, question, vagueness|
|help||encumberance, obstuction, harm|
|explain||conceal, misrepresent, withhold|
|use||halt, misuse, neglect|
|account||conceal, erase, hide|
|parallel||diverge, perpendicular, refuse|
|fact||fiction, lie, fabrication|
|simple||complex, intricate, involved|
|need||nonesential, luxury, comfort|
This list of examples is not exhaustive. Most of these words have alternative meanings, which means there are alternative antonyms for them as well.
You can find synonyms and antonyms for most words using a Thesaurus or by searching Google.
Knowing you have choices in applying the power of antonyms, you can improve your writing by choosing the higher-level antonyms and avoiding complementary antonyms.
Of course, great authors have used complementary antonyms to great effect. Here are the opening lines of “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens. They form a master class in using antonyms:
It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way– in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
When you focus your attention on subtler antonym pairs than those that are complementary, you learn nuance. Nuance refers to the shades of meaning and usage in language.
Consider two choices and the quality of writing each demonstrates:
Using polysyllabic antonyms adds interest to your writing, whether you are composing fiction or nonfiction. Studying antonym pairs help you see relationships between concepts, not just words. Can you see a qualitative difference in using fat/thin and obese/gaunt?
Studying antonyms is a great way to learn new words, too.
Words that are their own antonyms are called contronyms or Janus words after the Roman god, Janus, who had two faces looking into the past and future.
[insert illustration of Janus; or stock photo]
Take a word like fast, which often means speedy or quick. Yet fast also means to stay put.
Other Janus words and a sense of their opposite meanings include:
Decide if these words are antonyms or something else:
Read the example sentence and decide if the underlined word is a contronym or not:
Think of an antonymous word (a word having opposite meaning) for each of the following. Don’t be afraid to look up the word if you don’t know it:
Before you look, try it! Here are the answers:
After working your way through this lesson and video, you have learned:
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