Antithesis is a literary device that positions opposite ideas parallel to each other. Think heroes and villains, hot and cold, bitter and sweet. Antithesis enhances your writing by illuminating differences and making your point more persuasive.
What is antithesis?
Antithesis (pronounced an-TITH-uh-sis) deals in opposites. The Merriam-Webster definition of antithesis is “the direct opposite,” and in Greek the meaning is “setting opposite.” As a tool for writing, antithesis creates a juxtaposition of qualities using a parallel grammatical structure. In other words, it’s setting opposites next to each other using the same terms or structure. This creates a stark contrast that highlights dramatic qualities and creates a rhythm that’s interesting to the reader.
What is the function of antithesis?
The repetition of structure in antithesis makes writing more memorable, and its juxtapositions make writing more convincing.
Take, for example, the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . ” You’re probably familiar with this line even if the name Dr. Manette means nothing to you. Dickens took two contrasting qualities (best/worst) and linked them by using a parallel structure (it was . . . of times / it was . . . of times). The contrast is clear, and the sentiment is intriguing. The reader is hooked.
In rhetoric, antithesis calls attention to the differences between two options. For example, in a speech in Saint Louis in 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” King is obviously in favor of the former option: living together as brothers. He uses antithesis, placing opposite actions (live/perish) in a parallel structure (. . . together as brothers / . . . together as fools) to make his claim even more convincing.
How to use antithesis in writing
Contrast and parallel structure are the two most important elements for you to think about as you begin using antithesis in your own writing.
Contrast: The main tool of antithesis is its contrast of ideas. Ideally, the two concepts are direct opposites. However, sometimes you can get away with contrasting differences or implied opposites, which are forms of juxtaposition. (We’ll talk about the difference between antithesis and juxtaposition later.) The greater the difference between the two things, the clearer their contrast. Antithesis is more powerful than juxtaposition as it deals in stronger contrasts.
Parallel structure: Parallel structure in writing, also known as parallelism, creates a rhythm that draws attention to your contrast. Think about the famous Dickens line we talked about before: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” Notice how memorable that rhythm is. If we remove the parallel structure, you end up with something like: “It was the best of times, but not always. It was also the worst of times.” Same sentiment, not nearly as beautiful.
Be careful not to overuse antithesis though. Its effectiveness depends on grabbing your reader’s attention. Used too often, it can change from noteworthy to annoying.
Antithesis vs. juxtaposition
Antithesis, parallelism, and juxtaposition are closely related literary devices that overlap with each other. Just as antithesis reveals two contrary ideas’ qualities by contrasting them, learning the differences between these devices will help you understand each individually.
Juxtaposition means placing two objects side by side to highlight their differences. It is a broader category than antithesis. Antithesis is a type of juxtaposition. Antithesis means placing direct opposites side by side, while juxtaposition uses any sort of difference. Other forms of juxtaposition are foils (differences between specific characters) and oxymorons (seemingly illogical expressions that use contradictory words).
Antithesis vs. parallelism
This may sound familiar because we just wrote about how antithesis uses parallelism to make its point. Parallelism has to do with syntax, or the structure of the sentence. Put simply, it’s two or more clauses that have the same grammatical structure. For example, the expression “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” uses the same grammatical structure twice in a row. The difference between antithesis and parallelism is that parallelism does not have to deal in opposites, while antithesis does. Furthermore, antithesis refers to both the content and the structure of a statement, whereas parallelism is just a structure.
Once you know what to look for, you’ll see antithesis examples everywhere. Below are some selections that we found in literature, poetry, speeches, music, and advertising.
Antithesis in literature
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness . . .”
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness . . .”—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
“. . . me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”
“. . . me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”—Toni Morrison, Beloved
Antithesis in poetry
“Some say the world will end in fire,
“Some say the world will end in fire,Some say in ice” —Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice”
Antithesis in speech
“We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.”
“We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.”—John F. Kennedy, presidential inaugural speech
Antithesis in music
“’Cause you’re hot then you’re cold / you’re yes then you’re no / you’re in then you’re out / you’re up then you’re down”
“’Cause you’re hot then you’re cold / you’re yes then you’re no / you’re in then you’re out / you’re up then you’re down”—Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold”
Antithesis in advertising
“Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”
“Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.”—Sara Lee slogan
Easy come, easy go.
Easy come, easy go.Get busy living or get busy dying. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” —Muhammad Ali, 1964
What is antithesis?
Antithesis is a literary device that places opposite words, ideas, or qualities parallel to each other. The contrast between them creates greater emphasis and clarity. Their parallel structure provides a memorable rhythm.
When is antithesis used?
The effect of antithesis is useful in all kinds of writing and speech, including literature, advertising, rhetoric, and music. It’s best used to make an emphatic point in a catchy way.
How is antithesis used in writing?
In writing, antithesis combines juxtaposition and parallelism. The pattern created by antithesis allows writers to highlight differences, emphasize qualities, and generate rhythm.