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What Is Antithesis?
Antithesis (Greek for “setting opposite”) means “a contrast or opposite.” For example, when something or someone is the opposite of another thing or person.
As a rhetorical device, antithesis pairs exact opposite or contrasting ideas in a parallel grammatical structure. Consider William Shakespeare’s famous line in Hamlet: “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.” This is a great example of antithesis because it pairs two contrasting ideas—listening and speaking—in the same parallel structure.
- The effect of antithesis can be powerful. When used correctly, antithesis highlights the stark difference between opposing ideas by placing them side-by-side in exactly the same structure. When used in the context of an argument, the way these ideas are placed side-by-side can make it obvious which idea is better.
- Antithesis is also a great literary device to create rhythm. Antithesis often makes use of parallelism—it sets up a repetitive structure that makes writing sound musical. Consider Charles Dickens’s famous opening of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Learn more about parallelism here.
3 Tips on Using Antithesis in Your Writing
Antithesis is a great way to add contrast to your writing. To use antithesis to the greatest 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 is battling two conflicting emotions? Is there a setting that embodies opposing attributes? The two concepts don’t need to be exact opposites—like light and dark—but should be different and distinct, like, say, like excitement and frustration.
- Read it out loud. When working with a parallel structure, you want the rhythm of each piece to be as similar as possible. If you’re stuck, try reading the line aloud and hearing where the syllables don’t match up. The parallel structure of antithesis doesn’t need to be exact, but the closer the two are in structure, the more rhythmic the antithesis will sound.
- Use it sparingly. As with most other rhetorical devices, antithesis is best used in short bursts—overuse it, and the impact will become dull and you run the risk of making your writing sound trite or forced.
What Are Some Examples of Antithesis?
Antithesis is a very common figure of speech in literature and politics because its effect produces clear, memorable, and lyrical writing. Here are a few famous examples of antithesis:
- Neil Armstrong (1969): “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
- Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism (1711): “To err is human; to forgive divine.”
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859): “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream” speech (1963): “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
- Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address (1863): “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”
- John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667): “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.”
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