The Grammarphobia Blog

Opposing views

Q: Is there a distinction between words that are true opposites—equidistant in opposite directions from a neutral midpoint—and words that are characterized by more or less of something? Mathematically, “east” and “west” are true opposites (opposite directions from a central geographical point), while “white” and “black” aren’t (one has all colors, the other none).

A: We assume your question was inspired by our recent blog entry about antonyms. If not, have a look at it.

In answer to your question, we don’t know of any distinction in language between words that are notional opposites and those that are mathematically measurable opposites.

But don’t confuse the two categories. Language is not quantum physics or differential geometry.

“White” and “black” are clearly notional opposites, or antonyms, words that convey opposite ideas.

The fact that to a scientist one represents the presence of something (color) and the other its absence is irrelevant from the point of view of language.

In fact, the words “absence” and “presence” themselves are notional opposites.

“Hot” and “cold” are also notional opposites. They represent opposing concepts, regardless of what is being measured and whether there is any midpoint between them.

In fact, some words that meet your idea of “true opposites” may not be antonyms at all.

“Red” and “green,” for example, may be opposites on a color wheel, but this doesn’t make them antonyms. The only “colors” that are antonyms are “black” and “white.”

While abstract (or unmeasurable) terms may be regarded as “false” from the scientist’s or mathematician’s point of view, they are nevertheless legitimate linguistic concepts.

Of course many words are opposites to both literary and scientific blokes.

As Rudyard Kipling puts it in his Barrack-Room Ballads (1892): “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

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