Antithesis (Grammar and Rhetoric)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

An antithetical observation by Roman rhetorician Quintilian, quoted by James Jasinski in Sourcebook on Rhetoric (Sage, 2001). See additional examples below.

 Richard Nordquist

Antithesis is a rhetorical term for the juxtaposition of contrasting ideas in balanced phrases or clauses. Plural: antitheses. Adjective: antithetical.

In grammatical terms, antithetical statements are parallel structures

"A perfectly formed antithesis," says Jeanne Fahnestock, combines "isocolon, parison, and perhaps, in an inflected language, even homoeoteleuton; it is an overdetermined figure. The aural patterning of the antithesis, its tightness and predictability, are critical to appreciating how the syntax of the figure can be used to force semantic opposites" (Rhetorical Figures in Science, 1999).


From the Greek, "opposition"

Examples and Observations

  • "Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing."
  • "Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee."
    (advertising slogan)
  • "There are so many things that we wish we had done yesterday, so few that we feel like doing today."
    (Mignon McLaughlin, The Complete Neurotic's Notebook. Castle Books, 1981)
  • "We notice things that don't work. We don't notice things that do. We notice computers, we don't notice pennies. We notice e-book readers, we don't notice books."
    (Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. Macmillan, 2002)
  • "Hillary has soldiered on, damned if she does, damned if she doesn't, like most powerful women, expected to be tough as nails and warm as toast at the same time."
    (Anna Quindlen, "Say Goodbye to the Virago." Newsweek, June 16, 2003)
  • "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."
    (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)
  • "Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs, not ours."
    (President Barack Obama, election night victory speech, November 7, 2012)
  • "You're easy on the eyes
    Hard on the heart."
    (Terri Clark)
  • "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
    (Martin Luther King, Jr., speech at St. Louis, 1964)
  • "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."
    (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address, 1863)
  • "All the joy the world contains
    Has come through wishing happiness for others.
    All the misery the world contains
    Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself."
  • "The more acute the experience, the less articulate its expression."
    (Harold Pinter, "Writing for the Theatre," 1962)
  • "And let my liver rather heat with wine
    Than my heart cool with mortifying groans."
    (Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)
  • Jack London's Credo
    "I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dryrot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
    (Jack London, quoted by his literary executor, Irving Shepard, in an introduction to a 1956 collection of London's stories)
  • Antithesis and Antitheton
    "Antithesis is the grammatical form of antitheton. Antitheton deals with contrasting thoughts or proofs in an argument; Antithesis deals with contrasting words or ideas within a phrase, sentence, or paragraph."
    (Gregory T. Howard, Dictionary of Rhetorical Terms. Xlibris, 2010)
  • Antithesis and Antonyms
    Antithesis as a figure of speech exploits the existence of many 'natural' opposites in the vocabularies of all languages. Small children filling in workbooks and adolescents studying for the antonyms section of the SAT learn to match words to their opposites and so absorb much vocabulary as pairs of opposed terms, connecting up to down and bitter to sweet, pusillanimous to courageous and ephemeral to everlasting. Calling these antonyms 'natural' simply means that pairs of words can have wide currency as opposites among users of a language outside any particular context of use. Word association tests give ample evidence of the consistent linking of opposites in verbal memory when subjects given one of a pair of antonyms most often respond with the other, 'hot' triggering 'cold' or 'long' retrieving 'short' (Miller 1991, 196). An antithesis as a figure of speech at the sentence level builds on these powerful natural pairs, the use of one in the first half of the figure creating the expectation of its verbal partner in the second half."
    (Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Figures in Science. Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • Antithesis in Films
    - "Since . . . the quality of a scene or image is more vividly shown when set beside its opposite, it is not surprising to find antithesis in film . . .. There is a cut in Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick) from the yellow flickers of a flaming house to a still gray courtyard, lined with soldiers, and another from the yellow candles and warm browns of a gambling room to the cool grays of a terrace by moonlight and the Countess of Lyndon in white."
    (N. Roy Clifton, The Figure in Film. Associated University Presses, 1983)
    "It is clear that in every simile there is present both differences and likenesses, and both are a part of its effect. By ignoring differences, we find a simile and may perhaps find an antithesis in the same event, by ignoring likeness. . . .
    - "In The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges), a passenger boards a liner by tender. This was conveyed by the two vessels' whistling. We see a convulsive spurt of water and hear a desperate, soundless puff before the siren of the tender found its voice. There was a stuttering amazement, a drunken incoordination to these elaborate preliminaries, foiled by the liner's lofty unruffled burst of sounding steam. Here things that are like, in place, in sound, and in function, are unexpectedly contrasted. The commentary lies in the differences and gains force from the likeness."
    (N. Roy Clifton, The Figure in Film. Associated University Presses, 1983)
  • Antithetical Observations of Oscar Wilde
    - “When we are happy, we are always good, but when we are good, we are not always happy.”
    (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891)
    - “We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.”
    ("The Critic as Artist," 1991)
    - “Wherever there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man who resists authority.”
    (The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)
    - “Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer.”
    ("The Critic as Artist," 1991)

Pronunciation: an-TITH-uh-sis

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Antithesis (Grammar and Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Antithesis (Grammar and Rhetoric). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Antithesis (Grammar and Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).