Antonyms are words that have contrasting, or opposite meanings. Like so much of the English language, ‘antonym’ is rooted in the Greek language. The Greek word ‘anti’ means opposite, while ‘onym’ means name. Opposite name – that makes sense! Mainly there are three different kinds of antonyms -Complementary, Relational and Graded.

Complementary

Complementary antonyms have no middle ground. Complementary opposites are pairs that express absolute opposites.

boy x girl
off x on
night x day
entrance x exit
exterior x interior
true x false
dead x alive
push x pull
pass x fail

Relational

Relational antonyms (Converses) are pairs in which one describes a relationship between two objects and the other describes the same relationship when the two objects are reversed. These are similar to complementary antonyms, except that both must exist for them to be antonyms of each other.

above x below
doctor x patient
husband x wife
servant x master
borrow x lend
give x receive
predator x prey
buy x sell
instructor x pupil

Graded

Gradable antonyms are two ends of the spectrum, but can have variations. These antonyms deal with levels of comparison and they can be two words on a scale. Many are relative terms, which can be interpreted differently by different people.

young x elderly
hard x easy
happy x wistful
wise x foolish
fat x slim
warm x cool
early x late
fast x slow
dark x pale

Since the English language is so complex, people may disagree about which words truly have opposite meanings. So, some tactics are used for choosing the most appropriate word every time.

Add a Prefix to Create an Antonym

Sometimes, one doesn’t need to search for another word entirely. It’s possible to create an antonym simply by adding a prefix to the word.

Some examples of antonyms created by adding the prefix dis

agree x disagree
appear x disappear
belief x disbelief
honest x dishonest

Adding the prefix in can make the following opposites

tolerant x intolerant
decent x indecent
discreet x indiscreet
excusable x inexcusable

Using the prefix mis create antonyms

behave x misbehave
interpret x misinterpret
lead x mislead
trust x mistrust

Examples of antonyms made by adding the prefix un

likely x unlikely
able x unable
fortunate x unfortunate
forgiving x unforgiving

By adding the prefix non can make these antonyms

entity x nonentity
conformist x nonconformist
align x nonalign
payment x nonpayment
sense x nonsense

Auto-antonyms

Auto-antonyms are the same words that can mean the opposite of themselves under different contexts or having separate definitions.

enjoin (to prohibit, issue injunction; to order, command)
fast (moving quickly; fixed firmly in place)
cleave (to split; to adhere)
sanction (punishment, prohibition; permission)
stay (remain in a specific place, postpone; guide direction, movement)

Antonymy

Though the word antonym was only coined by philologists in the 19th century, such relationships are a fundamental part of a language, in contrast to synonyms, which are a result of history and drawing of fine distinctions, or homonyms, which are mostly etymological accidents or coincidences.The term antonym and the related antonymy has also been commonly used as a term that is synonymous with opposite; however, the term also has other more restricted meanings. One usage has antonym referring to both gradable opposites, such as long : short, and (nongradable) complementary opposites, such as male : female, while opposites of the types up : down and precede : follow are excluded from the definition. A third usage defines the term antonym as referring to only gradable opposites (the long : short type) while the other types are referred to with different terms.

In lexical semantics, opposites are words that lie in an inherently incompatible binary relationship as in the opposite pairs male : female, long : short, up : down, and precede: follow. The notion of incompatibility here refers to fact that one word in an opposite pair entails that it is not the other pair member. For example, something that is long entails that it is not short. It is referred to as a ‘binary’ relationship because there are two members in a set of opposites. The relationship between opposites is known as opposition. A member of a pair of opposites can generally be determined by the question What is the opposite of X ?

Opposites are interestingly simultaneously different and similar in meaning. Typically, they differ in only one dimension of meaning, but are similar in most other respects, including similarity in grammar and positions of semantic abnormality. Additionally, not all words have an opposite. Some words are non-opposable. For example, the word platypus has no word that stands in opposition to it. The main reason is that animal or plant species have no binary opposites other than possible gender opposites such as lion / lioness, etc. Other words are opposable but have an accidental gap in a given language’s lexicon. For example, the word devout lacks a lexical opposite, but it is fairly easy to conceptualize a parameter of devoutness where devout lies at the positive pole with a missing member at the negative pole.

Opposites may be viewed as a special type of incompatibility. Words that are incompatible create the following type of entailment where X is a given word and Y is a different word incompatible with word X. An example of an incompatible pair of words is cat : dog: It’s a cat entails. It’s not a dog.

This incompatibility is also found in the opposite pairs fast : slow and stationary : moving, as can be seen below.

It’s fast entails. It’s not slow.
It’s stationary entails. It’s not moving.

Basic Characteristics of Opposites

  • binarity
  • inheritness
  • patency

Synonyms and Antonyms

A synonym is basically the opposite of an antonym. It is a word that means the same, or almost the same, as another word. They help us avoid repetition in our speech and writing and expand our vocabulary. Synonyms and antonyms are used every day by teachers, students, writers, editors, poets, and songwriters to add variety to writing.

Antonyms can be used to demonstrate contrast between two things or provide clues as to what is meant. Here is a list of antonyms:

achieve x fail
giant x dwarf
random x specific
afraid x confident
gloomy x cheerful
rigid x flexible
ancient x modern
individual x group
shame x honour
arrive x depart
innocent x guilty
simple x complicated
arrogant x humble
knowledge x ignorance
single x married
attack x defend
liquid x solid
sunny x cloudy
blunt x sharp
marvellous x terrible
timid x bold
brave x cowardly
noisy x quiet
toward x away
cautious x careless
partial x complete
drunk x sober
private x public
vacant x occupied
expand x contract
problem x solution
vague x definite
freeze x boil
professional x amateur
villain x hero
full x empty
profit x loss
wax x wane
generous x stingy
quality x inferiority
wealth x poverty
tragic x comic
complex x simple
passive x active
transparent x opaque
crazy x sane
permanent x unstable
triumph x defeat
crooked x straight
plentiful x sparse
union x separation
demand x supply
positive x negative
unique x common
destroy x create
powerful x weak
upset x relaxed
divide x unite
praise x criticism
urge x deter

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, H.H. The Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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