Merriam Webster defines antonyms as : a word of opposite meaning.

However, I cannot understand what does opposite in the definition mean . Does it mean a negation ? For example, negation of to teach is to not teach. However , on internet , I saw that antonym of to teach is to learn . Clearly , to not teach is a thing not uniquely defined and it can mean anything except to teach like to play, eat, etc.. So :

  1. What exactly are antonyms ?

  2. What does opposite mean in english and how/why is it different from negation?

  3. It has been made clear from the comments that antonyms can be ambiguous in many cases . So , shouldn't they be used only when they are not vague ? Like, existing and non-existing is a good example because if something is existing , then it definitely follows that it is not non-existing only . The "only" emphasises that there is no third option and hence no ambiguity and in this example , the antonyms make sense. Am I correct ? Should these changes in definitions be made in language ?


  • 2
    Good question. But please look at the site help/guide to see how to ask. Google and school memories are unreliable sources. I suggest that you refine your question by consulting dictionaries such as Cambridge and Merriam Webster. Then let us know if you still have difficulty so that we may help you.
    – Anton
    Sep 10, 2022 at 7:28
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    If you search on here for antonym you'll see a lot of questions facing the same issues. AFAIK, antonym doesn't have a clear definition. There are words that have multiple antonyms and others where it's not clear they have any.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 10, 2022 at 7:52
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    Shrink (get smaller) is an antonym of grow (get bigger). It doesn't mean the same as not grow (stay the same size). Sep 10, 2022 at 8:11
  • Thanks . So if antonyms are ambiguous definition , then why are they included in languages , especially here , english language ? Should I add this also as a question?
    – Get_ Maths
    Sep 10, 2022 at 13:17
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    Is the “opposite” of an electron a proton or a positron? Is the “opposite” of a stallion a mare or a gelding, or even a colt?
    – tchrist
    Sep 11, 2022 at 16:46

4 Answers 4


Antonym is a popular (i.e, non-technical) term that is often learned in school along with the term synonym, which is equally non-technical. Hence neither have fixed meanings, since everybody has their own ideas about what words mean, and what words don't mean. They also have their own ideas of what constitutes an opposite.

Negation, on the other hand, is, like nouns and verbs, a feature of all languages, and its study is a very complex technical field in semantics, philosophy, and logic. A large portion of the questions received here at ELU.SE involve negation of one sort or another, because it is intrinsically confusing, and it's rarely covered in English classes of any sort.

As explicated in the links, there are few real "opposites"; mostly these are words that occur on clines like freezing - cold - cool - warm - hot - boiling. Note there is no opposite for lukewarm. But most adjectives don't occur in semantic clines, and then picking an "opposite" is hard. Very hard. What's the opposite of rabbit, for instance? Or cup? (William Labov did a series of experiments around 20 years ago that showed that cup and bowl had complex meanings that did not "oppose" easily.)

There are other uses of opposition and antonymy beyond English, however. Ken Hale's famous paper "A Note on a Walbiri Tradition of Antonymy" describes an Australian culture where initiated males speak a form of secret language that uses only opposites, for every morpheme. Learning how to do it is part of the initiation ritual.

  • While writing this question, I just completely forgot about synonyms. However , I think that synonyms are far better than antonyms . Anyway , I am just a beginner . Thanks for the clarification.
    – Get_ Maths
    Sep 10, 2022 at 14:14
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    Good answer. We should use it to explain to people why not every word has an antonym or an opposite.
    – Robusto
    Sep 10, 2022 at 15:09
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    "Note there is no opposite for lukewarm." But there is!! It's "enthusiastic".
    – Stef
    Sep 10, 2022 at 17:54
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    This soup is not enthusiastic enough? Sep 10, 2022 at 20:17
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    I initially misread the title of the paper as A Note on a Walbiri Tradition of Astronomy, which was an intriguing idea... Sep 11, 2022 at 0:09

There are a number of different relationships between x and y that can be expressed by saying that x is an antonym of y. All of them are covered by the standard dictionary definition of antonym as a term with the opposite meaning, because opposite itself covers a number of different relationships.

(1) If y stands for one end of some kind of a spectrum, then one can say that x is its antonym if it stands for the other end of the same spectrum. If one wants to make it clear that one is talking about a relationship of this kind, one can say that x is the gradable antonym of y. In logic textbooks, the relationship is sometimes expressed by saying that x and y are contrary concepts. A question seeking the gradable antonym of y is meaningless if y does not stand for one end of some kind of a spectrum; most words cannot have gradable antonyms because they do not satisfy that condition. Black is the gradable antonym of white, but there is no gradable antonym of grey, because grey stands for something that is in-between these extremes, and, of course, there is no gradable antonym for desk, rock, or tree because these words stand for something that is not on any kind of a spectrum. It should be noted that spectrum and end are used here loosely and that x and y themselves may be vague; as a result of that, there will sometimes be room for discussion whether x and y are gradable antonyms.

(2) One can, however, also say that x is an antonym of y if x covers everything that is not y, within the relevant domain. If one wants to make it clear that one is talking about a relationship of this kind, one can say that x is a complementary antonym of y. The relationship can also be expressed by saying that x and y are contradictory concepts. One can always create the complementary antonym of a word by adding non-, un- or a similar prefix to it. Not many words, however, have complementary antonyms that are morphologically independent, but some do (e.g. stationary is the complementary antonym of moving).

(3) If x and y are defined as words for the objects in a binary, asymmetrical relation to each other (e.g. pupil and teacher, or buyer and seller), they are also sometimes said to be antonyms, although that use of antonym is probably less frequent than the first two. If one wants to make it clear that one is using antonym in this way, one can say that x is a relational antonym of y.

Usually, somebody seeking an antonym (of any of these kinds) of y expects it to be in the same register as y.

Now, to answer the question directly, the relationship between the concepts of an antonym and negation is the closest in (2), as a complementary antonym of y is, by definition, a word that stands for all and only those things that are not y. Definitions of the other two kinds of antonyms imply negation, but involve more than that: such an antonym stands for some of the things that are not y, but not for all of them.

Questions often appear on this site in which somebody seeks an antonym for a given word without being aware of the differences among different kinds of antonyms, and without realising that the kind of antonym that one has in mind may determine whether it makes sense to ask ‘What is the antonym of y?’ Regular contributors to the site are frustrated with such questions, and it is understandable that they sometimes wish that the word antonym did not exist at all. There is, however, nothing wrong with using that word, as long as one is mindful of the differences among different kinds of antonyms, and makes sure that it is clear which kind is referred to in a particular case.

  • I got to learn that antonyms can be defined variably depending on the word provided . It possibly suggests that antonyms are not unique , unlike the inverses of bijections like we learn in math. However , if we restrict our domain of words , I think we can make this relation a bijection and uniqueness could be added to it . Thanks for the answer
    – Get_ Maths
    Sep 11, 2022 at 14:29
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    Even if the word antonym didn't exist, they'd still ask for "the opposite of X"
    – Barmar
    Sep 11, 2022 at 14:56

Simply: if you negate a word, you get an antonym of that word, but not all antonyms are related by the negation operation.


Negate happy, get its antonym unhappy, but unhappy has a synonym sad. Sad is an antonym of happy that is not obtained by negating happy.

Beware: the in- in inflammable is not a prefix of negation (people thinking that is is why flammable was coined).


The essential difference is (i) negation states what is not done or what the state or object is not.


"He did not drink the water" does not tell us what he did with the water - he might have poured it on the ground, thrown it at someone, used it to wash his car, etc.

"It is not hot/big" tells us little about the temperature/size other than by excluding "hot/big" and only then within context.

"It is not a proton" excludes only the possibility that the object is a proton - it could be a football pitch or a political theory...

(ii) (a) An antonym states what is done or what the state or object is. "He gave the profit willingly/reluctantly" "He took the profit willingly/reluctantly" "He gave the loss willingly/reluctantly" "He took the loss willingly/reluctantly"

(b) The antonym resembles the synonym in that there is only very rarely, a true antonym (or synonym), i.e. none of the properties of the antonym exist within its pair. If we consider a word and its antonym, then the antonym possesses salient or defining properties that are diametrically opposed in nature to those properties that its pair possesses by virtue of action, state, or existence.

The proton is a subatomic particle that possesses a positive charge; an electron shares the state of being a subatomic particle that possesses a charge, but the salient point is that the charge is negative.

To give and to take something involves the movement of the object from one person to another - the antonym merely reverses the direction.

Big and small reference the common property of size.

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