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Antonymy

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English

The term antonymy in semantics derives from the Greek words anti and onym, which mean opposite and name. The opposite of antonymy is synonymy.

What is antonymy?

Antonymy refers to words that have opposite meanings. These are usually in pairs, for example: hot/cold, tall/short, loud/quiet.

To test yourself, look at the following sentence from Barack Obama's 2008 victory speech and find the antonyms:

It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled - Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of red states and blue states; we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

The antonyms that are included in the excerpt are: young/old, rich/poor, Democrat/Republican, black/white, gay/straight, and disabled/not disabled.

A ← → B

What are some examples of antonymy?

Antonymy can be found across all parts of speech. For example:

  • Adjective: easy/hard, wet/dry, hot/cold

  • Nouns: hero/villain, freedom/slavery

  • Verbs: answer/ask, discourage/encourage

  • Adverbs: now/then, loudly/softly

  • Propositions: on/off, above/below

Antonymy can also be found in idioms:

  • Although they are twins, their personalities are night and day.

  • Things don't always go as you want. You have to learn to take the bad with the good.

What are the types of Antonyms?

There are three types of antonym which are categorized by the relationship between the opposing words:

Gradable antonyms

Imagine you're looking at a room thermometer. If the indicator is at the bottom of the thermometer, it tells you that the room is cold. If it is at the top, the room is hot. However, the thermometer can also indicate warm temperature when the indicator is in the middle.

Hot and cold are gradable antonyms. Gradable antonyms define words that are at the opposite ends of a spectrum with some gradation between the two extremes. In our temperature example we have hot - cold, with warm between hot and cold. Other examples include empty - full (gradations: half empty or half full), high - low (gradation: medium), and young - old (gradation: teenager).

Antonymy, Gradable Antonym, StudySmarterGradable antonym example, pixaby.com

Complementary antonyms

Complementary antonyms explain an either-or relationship between the opposite word pairs.

Remember when you have to answer true or false questions on tests? This is an example of a complementary antonym. There are only two options, either true or false. There is no half-true or half-false.

Because of this, each complementary antonym can exist independently of the other and is usually its absolute opposite. Other examples are dead/alive, exterior/interior, and yes/no.

Antonymy, Complementary Antonym, StudySmarterComplementary antonym example, pixaby.com

Relational/converse antonyms

Relational/converse antonyms show a dependent relationship between opposite words. A word from the pair can't exist without the other. For example, open/close. A shop owner must first open the shop before they can close it. Other examples include husband/wife, front/back, and doctor/patient.

Antonymy, Relational and Converse Antonym, StudySmarterRelational / Converse antonym example, pixaby.com

Antonymy in Literature

In Literature, antonymy is often used as a device. Antonymy allows writers to juxtapose words to suggest irony or satire, or to make some words more prominent than others.¹ Antonymy is used in a number of ways in Literature:

Antithesis

This is a juxtaposition of two logically opposed elements.

To err is human to forgive is divine - Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711).

The err and forgive are relational/converse antonyms. An error needs to exist first for it to be forgiven. The two contrasting words also juxtapose human and divine (coming from or connected with God or a god - Oxford English Learner). The sentence then means 'it is normal for humans to make mistakes but to forgive is difficult'.

Oxymoron

This is a combination of two contradictory terms.

Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate,

O anything of nothing first 'create!'

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!

Misshapen chaos of 'well-seeming' forms. - William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)

Shakespeare expresses Romeo's emotional turmoil by using contradictory words: brawling love - loving hate. These signify that love and hate can exist at the same time. The conflicting meanings are further emphasized with heavy lightness - serious vanity which implies that the brawl may be about nothing (vanity), but it has serious consequences.

Paradox

This is a contradictory statement that, after closer inspection, is found to be true.

We die and rise the same, - John Donne, The Canonization (1633)

In his poem, Donne uses the analogy of a phoenix to describe a challenging love affair. According to mythology, a phoenix is an immortal bird that is reborn after it dies, from the ashes of its dead body. To convey this, Donne chooses to die and rise which are complementary antonyms.

Irony

This refers to meaning the opposite of what is said.

The apparent statement or event is undermined by another context to give a different meaning. Take Percy Shelley's Ozymandias (1818):

I met a traveler from an antique land

Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! '

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In this poem, the antonymy/irony relationship is described by contrasting the past and present. It is reflected by the magnificent power-imagery used about Ozymandias (king of kings; ye Mighty and despair) which sometime in the future is turned into its opposite. All that is left of the grandeur described on the plinth is desolation (half sunk; stamped on these lifeless things). It is therefore ironic that the statue, which was meant to show his everlasting power, is decapitated and no longer represents his great accomplishments. Instead, it is sunken in the desert, partially covered with sand.

Antonymy vs. synonymy - what's the difference?

Synonymy refers to similar meanings, while antonymy refers to opposite meanings. In other words, synonymy is the opposite of antonymy.

Here are some side-by-side comparisons of the two terms using the same words:

SynonymyAntonymy
good (adjective)pleasant, useful, reliablebad, poor, inadequate
always (adverb)constantly, regularly, repeatedlynever, at no time
question (noun)inquire, investigationanswer, reply
receive (verb) accept, collect, take inreject, deny, let go
above (preposition)raised, overbelow, under

Antonymy - Key takeaways

  • Antonymy is a pair of words that have opposite meanings. It is also known as 'opposition'.
  • The term antonymy derives from the Greek words anti and onym, which mean opposite and name.
  • The opposite of antonymy is synonymy.
  • There are three types of antonymy: antonyms degree deflection, complementary antonyms, and relational / Converse antonyms.
  • Some antonyms are used for antithesis, oxymoron, paradox, and irony.

¹Nünning, V., & Nünning, A, An Introduction to the Study of English and American Literature, (2004).

Antonymy

Antonymy is a pair of words that have opposite meanings. For example, the opposite of true is false, empty is full, and boring is interesting.

Some examples of antonyms are hot - cold, true - false, and open - close.

The types of antonymy are gradable, complementary, and relational / converse antonyms.

Antonymy is about opposites. Synonymy is about similarities. Thus, antonymy is the opposite of synonymy.

Antonymy involves words that have opposite meanings. These usually appear in pairs, such as hot/cold, yes/no, wrong/right.

Final Antonymy Quiz

Question

What is antonymy?

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Answer

Antonymy is about opposite meanings.

Show question

Question

 What are the three types of antonym?


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Answer

The three types of antonyms are complementary, relational / converse, and gradable antonyms.

Show question

Question

True or false - Complementary antonyms are word pairs that are dependent on each other, such as husband-wife.


Show answer

Answer

 False

Show question

Question

 True or false - Gradable antonyms are word pairs that are on the opposite ends of a spectrum with gradations in between, such as hot - cold.


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

True or false - Relational/converse antonyms are word pairs that are dependent on one another, such as doctor-patient.


Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What type of antonymy does this pair of words belong to?


parent - child

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Answer

Relational/converse antonyms 

Show question

Question

What type of antonymy does this pair of words belong to?


Boring - interesting

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Answer

Gradable antonyms

Show question

Question

What type of antonymy does this pair of words belong to?


Off - on


Show answer

Answer

Complementary antonyms

Show question

Question

True or false - interior and exterior is a pair of complementary antonyms.


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Answer

True. Interior and exterior is a pair of complementary antonyms.

Show question

Question

 True or false - high and low is a pair of relational/converse antonyms.


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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or false - front and back is a pair of gradable antonyms.


Show answer

Answer

 False

Show question

Question

Name three literary devices that use antonym.


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Answer

Pun, irony, and paradox.

Show question

Question

Name the antonyms in this excerpt and name the literary device it uses:


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 ... (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859).


Show answer

Answer

The quote uses a series of paradoxes. It compares and contrasts two situations that seem impossible but are true, namely the best and worst, wisdom and foolishness, belief and incredulity.

Show question

Question

What is the opposite of antonymy?


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Answer

Synonymy.

Show question

Question

True or false - The antonym of receive is accept and its synonym is reject.


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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Gradable antonyms define words that are at the _______ ends of a spectrum.

Show answer

Answer

opposite

Show question

Question

Dead/alive are examples of what type of antonyms?

Show answer

Answer

Complementary antonyms

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Antonyms are usually in _____.

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Answer

pairs

Show question

Question

The term antonymy derives from the Greek words anti and onym, which mean what?

Show answer

Answer

opposite and name 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


An oxymoron is a combination of two _________ terms.

Show answer

Answer

contradictory

Show question

Question

True or false?


A paradox is a contradictory statement that, after closer inspection, is found to be untrue.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Antithesis is a __________ of two logically opposed elements.

Show answer

Answer

juxtaposition

Show question

Question

True or false?


Irony refers to meaning the opposite of what is said.

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank:


Antonymy refers to words that have _______ meanings.

Show answer

Answer

opposite

Show question

Question

True or false?


Antonymy cannot be found in idioms.

Show answer

Answer

False

Show question

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