The Grammarphobia Blog

Opposition research

Q: My son, a fourth grader, has a homework sheet that gives “brother/sister” and “husband/wife” as antonyms. Somehow this doesn’t seem right to me. What do you think?

A: The school worksheet misused the word “antonym.” It means “opposite.”

In its entry for “antonym,” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) defines it as “a word having a meaning opposite to that of another word.”

The dictionary give this sentence as an example: “The word wet is an antonym of the word dry.”

Words like “brother,” “sister,” “husband,” and “wife” do not have opposites, or antonyms. The only possible opposites of “brother” and “husband” would be “not brother” and “not husband.” Such terms wouldn’t have any meaning.

You might say that “brother” has a feminine counterpart: “sister.” And “wife” has a masculine counterpart: “husband.” But they aren’t opposites.

Neither are, for example, the nouns “dog” and “cat.” The dog might be called a canine counterpart to the cat; the cat might be called a feline counterpart to the dog. But they aren’t opposites.  

The adjectives “male” and “female” may be said to be opposites, however. Most antonyms tend to be adjectives and represent extremes of some condition or state: “black/white,” “wet/dry,” “dead/alive,” “light/dark,” and so on. 

We’re not saying that opposite nouns don’t exist. “Good” and “evil” might be described as opposites, for instance.

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