Opposite (semantics)

Opposite (semantics)

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 the 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 ?

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 (non-gradable) complementary opposites, such as male : female, while opposites of the types up : down and precede : follow are excluded from the definition.

A third usage (particularly that of the influential Lyons 1968, 1977) defines the term antonym as referring to only gradable opposites (the long : short type) while the other types are referred to with different terms. Therefore, as Crystal (2003) warns, the terms antonymy and antonym should be regarded with care. In this article, the usage of Lyons (1963, 1977) and Cruse (1986, 2004) will be followed where antonym is restricted to gradable opposites and opposite is used as the general term referring to any of the subtypes discussed below.

While objectal opposites are difficult to define it is generally accepted that the disappearance of an object is the closet rather than the lack of physical presence.


General discussion

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, animal or plant species have no binary opposites (other than possible gender opposites such as lion/lioness, etc.); the word platypus therefore has no word that stands in opposition to it (hence the unanswerability of What is the opposite of platypus?).

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 of such words can nevertheless sometimes be formed with the prefixes un- or non-, with varying degrees of naturalness. For example, the word undevout appears in Webster's dictionary of 1828, while the pattern of non-person could conceivably be extended to non-platypus. Conversely, some words appear to be a prefixed form of an opposite, but the opposite term does not exist, such as inept, which appears to be in- + *ept; such a word is known as an unpaired word.

Opposites may be viewed as a special type of incompatibility.[1] 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):[2]

sentence A is  X   entails  sentence A is not  Y  [3]

An example of an incompatible pair of words is cat : dog:

It's a cat  entails  It's not a dog [4]

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 [5]
It's stationary  entails  It's not moving

Cruse (2004) identifies some basic characteristics of opposites:

  • binarity
  • inheritness
  • patency



Complementary opposites are pairs that express absolute opposites, like mortal and immortal.

  • interactives
  • satisfactives
  • counteractives

Antonyms (gradable opposites)

For the purposes of this article (see introduction), antonyms, from the Greek anti ("opposite") and onoma ("name") are gradable opposites. Gradable opposites lie at opposite ends of a continuous spectrum of meanings; examples are hot and cold, slow and fast, and fat and skinny. Words may have several different antonyms, depending on the meaning: both long and tall can be antonyms of short.

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.

Languages often have ways of creating antonyms as an easy extension of lexicon. For example, English has the prefixes in- and un-, so unreal is the antonym of real and indocile is of docile.

Some planned languages abundantly use such devices to reduce vocabulary multiplication. Esperanto has mal- (compare bona = "good" and malbona = "bad"), Damin has kuri- (tjitjuu "small", kuritjitjuu "large") and Newspeak has un- (as in ungood, "bad").

Directional opposites

  • antipodals
  • reversives
  • converses (or relational opposites)
  • pseudo-opposites
  • 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, such as parent and child, teacher and student, or buy and sell.


An auto-antonym is a word that can have opposite meanings in different contexts or under separate definitions:

See also


  1. ^ Incompatibility can be compared to exclusive disjunction in logic.
  2. ^ There are four types of entailment useful to lexical semantics:
    • unilateral entailment: It's a fish unilaterally entails It's an animal. (It is unilateral, i.e. one-directional, because It's an animal does not entail It's a fish since it could be a dog or a cat or some other animal.)
    • logical equivalence (or multilateral entailment): The party commenced at midnight entails The party began at midnight AND The party began at midnight also entails The party commenced at midnight.
    • contrariety: The sentences 'X is blue all over' and 'X is red all over' are contraries since both cannot be simultaneously true. On the Aristotelian square of opposition, the A and E type propositions ('All As are Bs' and 'No As are Bs', respectively) are contraries of each other. Propositions that cannot be simultaneously false (e.g. 'Something is red' and 'Something is not red') are said to be subcontraries.
    • contradiction: It's dead entails It's not alive AND It's not alive entails It's dead AND It's alive entails It's not dead AND It's not dead entails It's alive. It's dead and It's alive are said to be in a contradictory relation.
  3. ^ Stated differently, if the proposition expressed by the sentence A is  X  is TRUE, then the proposition expressed by the sentence A is not  Y  is also TRUE.
  4. ^ It is assumed here that it has the same referent.
  5. ^ It is also assumed here the reference point of comparison for these adjectives remains the same in both sentences. For example, a rabbit might be fast compared to turtle but slow compared to a sport car. It is essential when determining the relationships between the lexical meaning of words to keep the situational context identical.


  • Crystal, David. (2003). A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics (5th ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  • Cruse, D. Alan. (1986). Lexical semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cruse, D. Alan. (1992). Antonymy revisited: Some thoughts on the relationship between words and concepts. In A. J. Lehrer & E. F. Kittay (Eds.), Frames, fields, and contrasts: New essays in semantic and lexical organization (pp. 289–306). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Cruse, D. Alan. (2002). Paradigmatic relations of exclusion and opposition II: Reversivity. In D. A. Cruse, F. Hundsnurscher, M. Job, & P.-R. Lutzeier (Eds.), Lexikologie: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen: Lexicology: An international handbook on the nature and structure of words and vocabularies (Vol. 1, pp. 507–510). Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Cruse, D. Alan. (2004). Meaning in language: An introduction to semantics and pragmatics (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Cruse, D. Alan; & Togia, Pagona. (1995). Towards a cognitive model of antonymy. Journal of Lexicology 1, 113-141.
  • Davies, M. (2007) ‘The Attraction of Opposites: The ideological function of conventional and created oppositions in the construction of in-groups and out-groups in news texts’, in Jeffries, L., McIntyre, D. and Bousfield, D. (eds) Stylistics and Social Cognition, pp. 79–100.
  • Jeffries, L. (2009, forthcoming) Opposition in Discourse: The Construction of Oppositional Meaning London: Continuum.
  • Jones, S. (2002), Antonymy: A Corpus-based perspective London and New York: Routledge.
  • Lehrer, Adrienne J. (1985). Markedness and antonymy. Journal of Linguistics, 21, 397-421.
  • Lehrer, Adrienne J. (2002). Paradigmatic relations of exclusion and opposition I: Gradable antonymy and complementarity. In D. A. Cruse, F. Hundsnurscher, M. Job, & P.-R. Lutzeier (Eds.), Lexikologie: Ein internationales Handbuch zur Natur und Struktur von Wörtern und Wortschätzen: Lexicology: An international handbook on the nature and structure of words and vocabularies (Vol. 1, pp. 498–507). Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Lehrer, Adrienne J.; & Lehrer, Keith. (1982). Antonymy. Linguistics and Philosophy, 5, 483-501.
  • Lyons, John. (1963). Structural semantics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lyons, John. (1968). Introduction to theoretical linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lyons, John. (1977). Semantics (Vol. 1). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Mettinger, Arthur. (1994). Aspects of semantic opposition in English. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Murphy, M. Lynne. (2003). Semantic relations and the lexicon: Antonymy, synonymy, and other paradigms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Palmer, F. R. (1976). Semantics: A new outline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Saeed, John I. (2003). Semantics (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell

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