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Language Arts

Antonyms



This article has information on antonyms including the definition of antonyms, examples of words that don't have antonyms, complementary pairs and gradable pairs of antonyms, and choosing from among multiple antonyms, and more.

Antonyms are words that have opposing or nearly opposing meanings in one particular dimension. For example, the antonyms hot/cold are opposite in the dimension of temperature, while the antonyms fast/slow are opposite in the dimension of velocity.

Because antonyms and synonyms are frequently spoken about together, the impression could be given that they are quite similar in how they work. In practice, this turns out not to be the case. Antonyms are quite different from synonyms in several respects. One is that there are fewer antonyms than synonyms. Most words have a synonym, even some you might not immediately think of when you think of synonyms like quick/fast or kind/nice. Take a look at these:

  • leopard - feline, Panthera pardus, snow leopard, cheetah
  • oak - tree, Quercus, acorn-bearer
  • linguini - pasta
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson - First Baron Tennyson, poet laureate of England in 1850, writer of “The Charge of the Light Brigade”

But these are examples of words that do not have an antonym though they may have synonyms. There is no antonym of leopard or oak or linguini or Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Another difference is that, unlike with synonyms, there are three explicit types of antonyms: complementary pairs, gradable pairs, and relational pairs (sometimes called converse pairs).

Complementary Pairs of Antonyms

Complementary pairs  means that these antonyms words have an exact and un-debatable opposite in some dimension. In a complementary pair, each antonym can be well-defined as the opposite of the other. Here are some examples:

  • on - off
  • present - absent
  • alive - dead
  • permit - forbid
  • remember - forget
  • true - false

So we can say things like, false means “not true”; forget means “fail to remember”; absent means “not present.” In addition, in the real world, it is difficult to imagine a middle ground between the extremes presented by most of the complementary pair (no, we’re not going to consider zombies!).

Another way to think about this is that the antonyms in a complementary pair don’t have a comparative and superlative. You can’t turn something on-er than on, and nothing is dead-er than dead.

Gradable Pairs of Antonyms

Gradable pairs are the end points of a range or a cline. One can imagine points in between and describe them in words. Something can be deeper, newer, or less frequent. Someone can be thinner, more humble, or noisier.

  • deep - shallow
  • near - far
  • clean - dirty
  • slowly - quickly
  • frequently - rarely
  • closely - distantly
  • sloth - diligence
  • joy - sorrow
  • sleep - insomnia
  • new - old
  • simple - complex
  • noisy - silent
  • thick - thin
  • humble - vain
  • full - empty
  • harsh - lenient
  • happy - sad
  • early - late
  • patient - impatient

Multiple Antonyms

Another thing to keep in mind when thinking about gradable antonyms particularly, is that some words can have more than one antonym. Depending on the situation, the antonym of happy could be sad, angry, disappointed, or disgruntled. And, depending on the context, antonyms of fresh could include clichéd, stale, moldy, and standard. Straight presents a similar situation: it could be the antonym of crooked, curved, deceitful,

This means that if the quality on one end is lessened, it does not follow that the other is necessarily increased. A person could be less happy without being more sad, for the simple reason that his or her happiness is being diminished by anger rather than sadness.

Relational/Converse Pairs of Antonyms

This set of antonyms looks at a particular situation from opposite viewpoints. The antonyms are not opposites, but the converse of each other in the situation. This situational understanding means that someone or something could end up in multiple pairs of relationship antonyms. The same person could be child to a parent, student to a teacher, and employee to an employer.

  • parent - child
  • teacher - student
  • winner - loser
  • male - female
  • singular - plural
  • above - below
  • before - after
  • behind - in front of
  • buy - sell
  • give - receive/take
  • speak - listen
  • husband - wife
  • emigrate - immigrate
  • employer - employee

Antonym Formation

 One important thing to remember in forming antonyms pairs is to make sure the two words are parallel. An antonym pairing like despaired/hopeful has successfully captured the contrast between despair and hope but has failed to put them in parallel forms. The pair should either be both past tense verbs: despaired/hoped or adjectives despairing/hopeful. If you do exercises or tests with adverbs, using a non-parallel word may well be one of the ways a multiple choice answer will try to mislead you.

Antonyms in Context

Knowing the types of antonyms can help you fare better when you do an antonym exercise in a class or on a test. Before you begin to answer, think about what type of antonym is being required by the situation: complementary pairs, gradable pairs, or relational pairs. Then you can use the definition of the type of antonym being used to help you figure out the appropriate response.

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Acronyms Homonyms Synonyms