Definition and Examples of an Antonym in English

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An antonym is a word having a meaning opposite to that of another word, such as hot and cold, short and tall. An antonym is the antonym of synonym. Adjective: antonymous. Another word for antonym is counterterm.

Antonymy is the sense relation that exists between words which are opposite in meaning. In Language: Its Structure and Use, Edward Finnegan defines antonymy as "a binary relationship between terms with complementary meanings."

How to Use Antonyms

It's sometimes said that antonymy occurs most often among adjectives, but as Steven Jones et al. points out in Antonyms in English: Construals, Constructions and Canonicity, it's more accurate to say that "antonym relations are more central to the adjective classes than to other classes."

Nouns can be antonyms (for example, courage and cowardice), as can verbs (arrive and depart), adverbs (carefully and carelessly), and even prepositions (above and below). 

"You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget." (Cormac McCarthy, The Road)

"A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving." (Albert Einstein, "The World as I See It")

Opposition and Parallelism

"Factors that contribute to particularly good antonym pairings may relate to more than just the two items' semantic oppositeness; for instance, the pairing of increase and decrease is supported by their rhyme and the perception of a parallel morphology, as well as their semantic opposition." (Steven Jones et al., Antonyms in English: Construals, Constructions and Canonicity)

Three Types of Antonyms

"Linguists identify three types of antonymy: (1) Gradable antonyms, which operate on a continuum: (very) big, (very) small. Such pairs often occur in binomial phrases with and: (blow) hot and cold, (search) high and low. (2) Complementary antonyms, which express an either/or relationship: dead or alive, male or female. (3) Converse or relational antonyms, expressing reciprocity: borrow or lend, buy or sell, wife or husband." (“Antonym,” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, by Tom McArthur)

Sources

  • “Antonym.” The Oxford Companion to the English Language, by Tom McArthur, Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.
  • Einstein, Albert. “The World As I See It.” Living Philosophies: By Albert Einstein, John Dewey, James Jeans ..., 1931.
  • Finegan, Edward. Language: Its Structure and Use. Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
  • Jones, Steven, et al. Antonyms in English: Construals, Constructions and Canonicity. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Picador, 2019.