How do lexical antonyms differ from synonyms?
This is the second and final chapter about Antonyms and Synonyms. To complete this reader, read each chapter carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Understand the basic concept of antonyms in English
– Discuss the key differences between antonyms and synonyms (Lesson 1 review)
– Explore the four types of antonym and how to best select synonyms for academic assignments
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In the second and final chapter of this short reader, we turn our attention from words which have similar meanings (synonyms) to those which have opposite meanings (antonyms). While a mastery of antonymy isn’t quite as important for academic writing as one of synonymy, a knowledge of the four types of antonym and how to select one antonym from another is still important for those wishing to achieve advanced English proficiency.c
How are antonyms and synonyms different?
Like synonyms, antonyms express close meaning relations between words. Where synonyms are words or phrases which have very similar meanings, however, antonyms are expression pairs which have meanings in opposition, such as ‘small/big’. This opposition, however, is usually only on one aspect of the semantic feature of a word, such as how ‘small/big’ share three out of the four such features below:
- physical property ✔
- relating to size ✔
- indicating comparison ✔
- expressing something minimal/maximal ?
The only semantic feature that these two words differ on (and therefore what makes them antonyms) is that the word ‘big’ expresses something maximal and ‘small’ something minimal. If this fourth feature were in fact the same, these words would instead be considered as being synonyms.
What are the four types of antonym?
Because not all antonyms functions in quite the same way, we can categorise them into four types: complementary, converse, directional and gradable.
Type 1: Complementary Antonyms
Complementary antonyms are pairs of words which have opposite, mutually exclusive meanings. This exclusivity indicates that, by definition, if one member of the pair is true, then the other should not be. Some examples are ‘true/false’, ‘man/woman’, ‘alive/dead’, ‘entrance/exit’ and ‘occupied/vacant’.
Type 2: Converse Antonyms
Where complementary antonyms are mutually exclusive, converse antonyms are mutually dependent. This means that for one to exist, then the other must too to complete the meaning of each. Examples include ‘teacher/student’, ‘buy/sell’, ‘husband/wife’ and ‘borrow/lend’.
Type 3: Directional Antonyms
One of the smallest categories, directional antonyms express pairs of words which reverse the direction of each other’s meaning. This is common with prepositions such as ‘in/out’ and ‘up/down’ but also common with verbs like ‘do/undo’, ‘marry/divorce’, ‘tie/untie’ and ‘enter/leave’.
Type 4: Gradable Antonyms
Gradable antonyms comprise adjectives such as ‘big’ and ‘small’ which exist on a gradable continuum. Unlike complementary antonyms however, this type is not mutually exclusive. Something being not small, for example, does not necessarily mean that it’s big. Other examples include ‘hot/cold’, ‘dirty/clean’, ‘empty/full’, ’early/late’ and ‘good/bad’.
Which methods are best for selecting antonyms?
Though somewhat less likely to be a significant issue when selecting antonyms over synonyms, students may still find themselves including inappropriate antonyms in their academic writing. Take for example the word ‘overweight’ below: Which of its many antonyms would you choose to use in an academic essay?
Were you able to tell that ‘lean’, ‘underweight’ and ‘slim’ are the only acceptable antonyms for ‘overweight’ simply by looking at this list? How could a student know that ‘attenuated’ is generally too obscure for common use, that ‘wafer-thin’ and ‘willowy’ are too informal or that ‘scraggly’ and ‘scrawny’ are too rude?
Thankfully, there are some useful resources that can help students select antonyms with accuracy. The first of these is experience: If you’ve already had successful experiences in using antonym pairs for example, then it might be wise to trust your own judgement until corrected otherwise. This is the method that native speakers subconsciously follow and what learners of English will need to learn to do too. You won’t always have an online dictionary on hand for instance to research a word’s opposites, and so you’ll benefit in the long run if you can better rely on your own knowledge and intuition.
More helpful for non-native speakers at first, however, is probably the use of computer software and lexical websites. A simple right click on Microsoft Word can, for example, offer a number of useful antonyms, as can lexical websites such as:
Whichever antonym you decide on in the end, pay careful attention to the success of its use. Through trial and error, you can let success and failure inform you of whether or not to try that expression again. Did your teacher offer a concerned comment on that word for example, or a fellow student in class react strangely to its use? Receive negative feedback about the antonyms you select and you can assume that you should research alternatives that better suit your intended meaning.
Great work on finishing this short two-chapter reader on antonyms and synonyms. Don’t forget to next unlock, download and complete our related worksheets to check your knowledge of these concepts. You might also wish to consider studying a related reader on word meanings to expand your knowledge of this area, such as one on idiomatic phrases or homonyms and ploysemes.
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