The antithesis, which literally means “opposite”, is a rhetorical device in which two opposing ideas come together in one sentence to achieve a contrasting effect.

As a rhetorical device, the antithesis matches exactly opposite or contrasted ideas in a parallel grammatical structure. Consider William Shakespeare’s famous phrase in Hamlet: “Give everyone your ear, but few your voice.” This is a great example of antithesis because it pairs two opposing ideas – listening and speaking – in the same parallel structure.

The effect of the antithesis can be powerful. When used correctly, the antithesis highlights the difference between opposing ideas by placing them side by side in the same structure. When used in the context of an argument, the way these ideas are placed side by side can make it clear which is best.

The antithesis is also a great literary resource for creating rhythm. The antithesis often uses parallelism: it establishes a repetitive structure that makes the writing sound musical. Think of the famous beginning of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

Practical explanation

The antithesis emphasizes the idea of contrast through parallel structures of contrasted phrases or clauses. The structures of the sentences and clauses are similar, to attract the attention of listeners or readers. For example:

“Setting foot on the moon may be a small step for a man, but a giant step for humanity.”

The use of contrasting ideas, “a small step” and “a giant step”,in the previous sentence emphasizes the importance of one of the greatest milestones in human history.

The function of the antithesis

Mainly, writers use the antithesis to argue. As a literary or rhetorical device, a writer attempts to communicate a particular point that is best expressed through opposites. These extreme opposites emphasize that point.

An antithesis stands out in writing. When using a parallel structure, the antithesis physically stands out when interspersed with other syntactic structures. In addition, an antithesis presents contrasting ideas that make the reader or audience stop and consider the meaning and purpose.

Often, the meaning of an antithesis is unclear. That is, the reader or the public must evaluate the statement to discover its meaning.

Writers use antithesis very sparingly. Since its purpose is to make the public stop and consider the argument, it must be used with purpose and intent.

A literary resource, such as the antithesis, uses words to convey ideas differently from the common words and expressions of everyday life. In this way, it conveys meaning more vividly than ordinary discourse. When opposing ideas come together, the idea is expressed with more emphasis.

As a literary resource, the antithesis makes contrasts to examine the pros and cons of a topic under discussion, and helps to make a judgment on that particular topic.

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3 tips to use the antithesis in your writings

The antithesis is a great way to add contrast to your writing. To use the antithesis to the maximum effect, follow these tips:

Focus on contrast

Think of places in your writing that would benefit from comparing two contrasting ideas. Is there a character who faces two opposing emotions? Is there a scenario that embodies opposite attributes? The two concepts do not have to be exactly opposite, like light and dark, but must be different and different, such as emotion and frustration.

Read it aloud

When working with a parallel structure, you want the rhythm of each piece to be as similar as possible. If you get stuck, try reading the line aloud and hearing where the syllables don’t match. The parallel structure of the antithesis need not be exact, but the closer the two get in structure, the more rhythmic the antithesis will sound.

Use it sparingly

Like most rhetorical resources, the antithesis is best used in short bursts: if abused, the impact becomes boring and you run the risk of the writing sounding trite or forced.

Antithesis vs. irony vs. juxtaposition

Often, the antithesis is confused with irony when used in speech. Although both are used to convey contrasts of ideas, they have a distinction: the antithesis is structured with parallelism in mind, while irony implies contradictions between appearance and reality through tone or word choice. See the following examples:

Antithesis: Temperance leads to happiness; intemperance ends, in general, in misery.

Irony: You found yourself in a non-smoking area on your smoking break.

Juxtaposition, on the other hand, is also used to highlight the differences between two things, but those two things need not be totally opposite. This rhetorical device compares similar things for the audience to detect the subtle differences. Juxtaposition also does not require a parallelism of sentences or a balanced grammatical structure. A popular example of this literary resource is the expression “When it rains, it dilutes”, which means that when one thing goes well, many things will go well; also, when one thing goes wrong, everything goes wrong.

Antithesis and antonyms

Antithesis is the grammatical form. The antonym deals with contrasting thoughts or evidence in an argument; the antithesis is concerned with contrasting words or ideas within a sentence, sentence or paragraph.

Also, the antithesis as a rhetorical figure takes advantage of the existence of many “natural” opposites in the vocabularies of all languages. Young children who fill out workbooks and teenagers who study for the antonyms section of the selectivity exam learn to match words with their opposites and thus absorb a lot of vocabulary as pairs of opposite terms, connecting up with down and bitter with sweet, fainthearted with brave and ephemeral with eternal.

Calling these antonyms “natural” simply means that word pairs can have wide validity as opposites among users of a language outside of any particular context of use. Word association tests amply demonstrate the constant bonding of opposites in verbal memory when subjects who are given one of the pairs of antonyms respond more often with the other, “hot” causes “cold” or “long” recovers “short”. An antithesis as a rhetorical figure at the phrase level is based on these powerful natural pairs, the use of one in the first half of the figure creates the expectation of his verbal partner in the second half.

Common examples of antithesis

Some famous antithetical statements have become part of our everyday discourse and are frequently used in arguments and discussions. The following is a list of some common antithetical statements:

To each his ear, but to few his voice.

Man proposes, God disposes.

Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing.

The word is silver, but silence is gold.

Patience is bitter, but it has a sweet fruit.

Money is the root of all evil; poverty is the fruit of all goodness.

You’re easy for the eyes, but hard for the heart.

Examples of antithesis in the literature

In literature, writers employ the antithesis not only in phrases, but also in characters and events. Therefore, its use is wide. Below are some examples of antithesis in the literature:

Example 1: A Tale of Two Cities (by Charles Dickens)

The first lines of the novel “History of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens offer an example of an unforgettable antithesis:

“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 time of belief, it was the time of unbelief, 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 it all before us, we had nothing before us, we all went straight to Heaven, we all went straight to the other side.”

The opposing ideas, situated in parallel structures, highlight the conflict that existed at the time dealt with in the novel.

Example #2: Julius Caesar (by William Shakespeare)

In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, we observe the antithesis in the characters of Mark Antony and Marcus Brutus. Brutus is portrayed as the “noblest of the Romans”, close to Caesar, and a person who loved Rome and Caesar. Antony, on the other hand, is shown to be a man with the evil intentions of taking charge of Rome. These antithetical characters highlight the conflict of the play.

Example 3: An Essay on Criticism (by Alexander Pope)

Alexander Pope, in his An Essay on Criticism, says:

“To err is human; forgive, divine.”

Fallibility is a trait of humans, and God — the Creator — is very forgiving. Through these antithetical ideas, Pope reveals the basic nature of the human being. It means that God forgives because his creation is wrong.

Example #4: Community (by John Donne)

We find the antithesis in John Donne’s poem, the community:

“We must love good and hate evil,

For the bad is bad, and the good is still good;

But there are indifferent things

That we cannot hate, nor love,

But one, and then another try,

As we see fit our fantasy.”

In the previous lines two contrasting words are combined: “love” and “hate”. It emphasizes that we love the good because it is always good, and we hate the bad because it is always bad. It is a matter of choice to love or hate things that are neither good nor bad.

Example #5: Paradise Lost (by John Milton)

John Milton, in Paradise Lost, says:

“It is better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven.”

Contrasting ideas of reigning/serving, and Hell/Heav’n are placed in this phrase to achieve an antithetical effect.

The antithesis in cinema

– “Since… the quality of a scene or image is most vividly displayed when it is placed next to its opposite, it is not surprising to find antithesis in the cinema… There’s a cut in Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick) that goes from the yellow flashes of a burning house to a still gray courtyard, lined with soldiers, and another that goes from the yellow candles and warm browns of a game room to the cold grays of a moonlight terrace 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 both differences and similarities are present, and both are part of their effect. By ignoring the differences, we find a simile and perhaps we find an antithesis in the same fact, by ignoring the resemblance. . . .

– “In The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges), a passenger boards an ocean liner on a boat. This was conveyed by the whistle of the two ships. We see a convulsed stream of water and hear a desperate, soundless snoring before the siren of the tender found her voice. There was a stuttering astonishment, a drunken incoordination in these preliminary elaborates, frustrated by the haughty and unflappable burst of sound steam from the ocean liner. Here there are unexpectedly contrasting things that are similar, in place, in sound and in function. The comment lies in the differences and gains strength by the similarity.”

(N. Roy Clifton, The Figure in Film. Associated University Presses, 1983)

Oscar Wilde’s antithetical remarks

– “When we’re happy, we’re always good, but when we’re good, we’re not always happy.”

(The Portrait of Dorian Gray, 1891)

– “We teach people to remember, we never teach them to grow.”

(“The critic as an artist”, 1991)

– “Where there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man who resists it.”

(The soul of man under socialism, 1891)

– “Society usually forgives the criminal; never forgives the dreamer” (“The critic as an artist”, 1991)

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Bibliographic References

Paisley, W. (1968). Information needs and uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 3, pp. 1-30.

Rohde, N. F. (1986). Information needs. Advances in Librarianship, 14, pp. 49-73.

Line, M.B. (1981). ‘The structure of social science literature as shown by a large-scale citation analysis’. In Social science information studies, 1(2), pp. 67-87


Antithesis. Photo: Unsplash. Credits: Mapbox @mapbox

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