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I was interested in the following sentences which appeared, respectively, in a news article titled “Can’t Park? Blame a Condo" and in a news article titled "Senator Simmons on the Negro", both in The New York Times.

1) “In the old days you had to provide parking,” Mr. Greco said. “Now it is to the contrary, and what we are seeing is a slow evaporation of the parking spaces.”

2) The spirit of Senator Simmons's article is not very humane or broad; it is, on the contrary rather narrow and harsh.

Oxford Dictionary of English has entries for both "to the contrary" and "on the contrary":

on the contrary used to intensify a denial of what as just been implied or stated by suggesting that the opposite is the case.

to the contrary with the opposite meaning or implication.

Reading what the vocabulary says, it seems that both journalists use the phrases in a wrong way inverting "to" with "on" and "on" with "to", respectively; but the difference between the two fragments is very slight, so I'm not able to definitively understand if I'm right.

Furthermore, the usage of the two fragments could be become interchangeable nowadays; but I'm not sure on this circumstance.

Can someone clarify if the fragments "to the contrary" and "on the contrary" are being correctly used in both cases?

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4 Answers 4

The ODE definitions that you cite confirm my instinct, that the two NYT excerpts are both correct. I wouldn't use these two expressions interchangeably, although the meanings are certainly similar.

Since (by the ODE definition) "on the contrary" just intensifies a statement, it would be incorrect in the first sentence. You wouldn't say "Now it is and what we are seeing is a slow evaporation of the parking spaces", so you also shouldn't say "Now it is on the contrary, and what we are seeing is a slow evaporation of the parking spaces".

However, in the second case, you could say "The spirit of Senator Simmons's article is not very humane or broad; it is rather narrow and harsh." Adding "on the contrary" just intensifies the contrast, rather than introducing a new idea, so it's the correct phrase to use here.

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"To the contrary" is a directional phrase, and will need to be used as a predicate, or subordinately to a predicate. This is why the first instance says "Now it is to the contrary" This form is to be equated with something IN the sentence itself.

"On the contrary" is a locative, and is to be used more logically in a sentence. As an interjection. Thus the second example has a comma following, it is an interjection. Also it is why the dictionary definition says that it is "used to intensify..." This form is to be equated with the statement as a whole.

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Based on the dictionary definitions you provided, I think the journalists used them correctly.

Both phrases are indeed closely related in meaning, and serve as an instead.

Quote 2 is basically saying:

Is the article broad and humane? On the contrary! It's narrow and harsh.

(The author is trying to accentuate how the article is far from broad and humane.)

In Quote 1, though, the speaker is talking about a more gradual shift, so such marked language is not called for. (It sounds like a policy change has, over time, begun to create a parking crisis. The new policy is to the contrary of the old one: whereas providing parking was once mandatory, now it is only optional, and no longer a requirement.)

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The meaning (of "to the contrary" and "on the contrary") you have provided should be sufficient to understand the difference.

  • You use "on the contrary" when you want to make a denial or contradiction more emphatic. You use it to show that you disagree with something; the statement that follows this phrase has the meaning opposite to something.
  • You use "to the contrary" when you want to imply the opposite of something (without a denial). You never use it to show that you disagree with something; the statement that follows this phrase has the meaning opposite to something.

In the second statement you have provided, you are denying/contradicting that the spirit of Senator Simmons's article is humane or broad; rather it is narrow and harsh. So, since you are denying something, you have to use on the contrary.

In the first statement you have provided, you are not denying/contradicting that in the old days you had to provide parking; rather you are simply saying that now, it is the opposite of it. Since you are not denying something, you have to use to the contrary.

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