What Is An Antonym?

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.

Types Of Antonyms

Antonyms exist on three levels of thought. Many are just binary pairs or complementary antonyms, like these:

  • in/out
  • backward/forward
  • bad/good
  • true/false

Complementary (Binary pair) antonyms

Other antonym pairs are relational antonyms, in which one word implies its opposite related word, even if it is not mentioned:

  • doctor/patient
  • husband/wife
  • lend/borrow
  • predator/prey
  • take/get

Words that have a sense of relation are said to have antonymy.

Relational antonym examples

A third level, graded or gradable antonyms, exist along a sliding scale of meanings:

  • hot/cold exist as extremes of the temperature spectrum, including warm/cool, toasty/frosty
  • dull/interesting has companion antonyms along the attention span spectrum like boring/fascinating, tiresome/enthralling
  • empty/full lie at opposite ends of either literal capacity (like a storage container) or figurative language (like an empty life, half-lived life, full life)
One advantage of studying relational and graded antonyms is that you expand your vocabulary, adding tools to your writer’s toolbox.

Graded antonym examples

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:

  • comfortable/uncomfortable
  • illegible/legible
  • unfit/fit
  • typical/atypical
  • irresponsible/responsible
  • modest/immodest

Antonyms using prefixes

Antonyms Examples

An antonym is a word that is the opposite of another word. Here is a list of example antonyms for you to review:

Examples Of Antonyms
Word Antonyms
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.

Expanding Your Vocabulary with Antonyms

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:

  • here/not here
  • presence/absence

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.

Contronyms

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.

Contronyms or janus words examples

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:

  • Cleave – On the treacherous mountainside, the brave geologists cleaved to one another as they searched for rocks that would easily cleave, or split, into pieces.
  • Dust – An actor playing the forest fairy will dust the sleeping couple with magic powder. Later, the stagehand will have to dust the stage to get rid of the powder.
  • Peruse – You can peruse the contract word by word, making certain you understand it, or you can quickly peruse it and skim to the end.
  • Sanction – We sanction, or approve, the decision by the ethics director to sanction, or disapprove of, the behavior of the corrupt officials.
  • Table – We can table this item for the next meeting, or we can table the topic, calling for immediate consideration.
Other terms for contronyms are antagonyms and auto-antonyms.

Antonym Quiz

Decide if these words are antonyms or something else:

  1. Up/down
  2. Inside/outside
  3. Grey/green
  4. Black/white
  5. Young/old
  6. Happy/joyful

Read the example sentence and decide if the underlined word is a contronym or not:

  1. The Congressional committee performed careful oversight of the funds, eager to ensure no money was wasted as an oversight.
  2. The bad smell in the kitchen told everyone that the overripe fruit had gone bad and must be composted.
  3. The dancers tripped the light fantastic on the dance floor until one of them tripped and fell.

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:

  1. Accolade
  2. Agile
  3. Copious
  4. Obese
  5. Statuesque
  6. Turbulent

Before you look, try it! Here are the answers:

  1. Up and down are complementary antonyms.
  2. Inside and outside are complementary antonyms.
  3. Grey and green are not antonyms.
  4. Black and white are complementary antonyms.
  5. Young and old are graded antonyms.
  6. Happy and joyful are synonyms, not antonyms.
  7. The word “oversight” is a contronym.
  8. The word “bad” is not an antonym. Some modern slang includes using “bad” to mean “good,” but that is not its use here.
  9. The word “tripped” is a contronym.
  10. Accolade could pair with antonyms such as reproof, indictment, censure, denunciation, condemnation, or reprimand.
  11. Agile could pair with an antonym like clumsy, stiff, awkward, slow, or lazy.
  12. Copious could pair with an antonym such as meager, lacking, scarce, or wanting.
  13. Obese can pair with an antonym like underweight, skinny, emaciated, or anorexic.
  14. Statuesque, an elegant word, can pair with an elegant antonym like grotesque, frumpy, or uncomely.
  15. Turbulent could pair with an antonym such as peaceable, peaceful, or halcyon.

What you learned:

After working your way through this lesson and video, you have learned:

  • Definition of antonym
  • Types of antonyms
  • How to use antonyms to improve your writing
  • Several examples of antonyms in the English language
Instructor: Malcolm M.
Malcolm has a Master's Degree in education and holds four teaching certificates. He has been a public school teacher for 27 years, including 15 years as a mathematics teacher.

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