What is antithesis? A guide with examples

Find out how to use antithesis to improve your writing and see examples of antithesis being used in literature, poetry and advertising.

What is antithesis and antithesis examples


      This blog post is part of the Semantix copywriters’ toolkit, which is a great resource for writing professionals and all those looking to improve their writing, including language and marketing students. Firstly, we’ll discuss the definition of antithesis, including how it differs from similar rhetorical devices. Then, we’ll look at how other writers have used antithesis to set contrast and add impact to their work, including some famous examples of antithesis in literature, poetry and marketing.

      What is antithesis?

      The word antithesis is sometimes used to mean ‘opposite’. For example, “She is slim and sporty – the very antithesis of her brother”. However, ‘antithesis’ (or ‘antitheses’ if plural) is also the name given to a particular rhetorical or literary device. In this blog post, we’ll be looking at ‘antithesis’ in its role as the rhetorical and literary device.

      The word ‘antithesis’ comes from the Greek for ‘setting opposite’. It means to express a concept by creating contrast. This can be done in different ways according to different definitions: either using only the content of the expression, or the content and the grammatical structure. Using the content can be as simple as using words with opposite meanings in close proximity to each other, or more complex by describing concepts that contrast with one another. This draws the reader’s attention to the differences between the two things.

      Antithesis often presents opposing ideas and presents those ideas in a parallel grammatical structure. This is unlike general parallelism, which presents a balance of elements in a structure (sentence, clause or other) without necessarily involving the content. Antithesis is usually created in two parts, but can also be formed by three or more opposing clauses.

      Writers can use antithesis to communicate a concept that is best expressed through opposites. It’s a simple yet effective way to really drive a point home. As with other literary devices, the rules aren’t set in stone, it’s more about using the device in ways that create impact and bring the words to life.

      Examples of antithesis in literature

      What makes a good piece of writing truly great? You might argue that the key ingredients include memorability, impact and the beauty of a rhythmical grammatical structure – deliverables that can be served skillfully with antitheses.

      When you put two antithetical concepts together in a short phrase, you get drama. And drama is what keeps the reader turning the pages.

      In addition, the parallel structure often used in antithesis makes the words stand out from the other text on a page. Working like a mental stop sign, it compels the reader to notice the contrasting ideas and consider the meaning of that contrast.

      Using antithesis, writers can present contradictions by balancing opposing words and statements. This builds contrasting images in a reader’s mind and creates a powerful impression of either a character or circumstance.

      A good portion of the best-known writers in history have been masters of antithesis. For example, antithesis plays a big part in the language used by William Shakespeare. In fact, nearly every character he created uses it. For example, in Macbeth the witches chant, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” – a simple but dramatic antithesis. One of the best-known Shakespearean quotes of all time is an antithesis from the play Hamlet, when the prince says, “To be, or not to be...”. In just six words Shakespeare creates a perfect contrast between existing and not existing, inviting the audience to ponder the meaning of life itself.

      Another famous use of antithesis is the expression, “To err is human; to forgive, divine”, which was written in 1711 by English poet Alexander Pope in ‘An Essay on Criticism, Part II’. After the original creation of the statement, further iterations have added the word ‘is’ so, “To err is human; to forgive is divine”, which, arguably, improves the rhythm by creating an equal number of words in each part of the sentence.

      And it’s not just the writers of old who wield the sword of antithesis so well: their modern counterparts are equally aware of its power. For example, the Green Lantern comic writers use antithesis at the start of Green Lantern’s oath in order to emphasise his mission to defeat evil at all costs:

      In brightest day, in blackest night,
      No evil shall escape my sight.
      Let those who worship evil’s might
      Beware my power – Green Lantern’s light!

      Antithesis in poetry

      Poetry is perhaps the writing genre where we find the most graceful use of words. That’s why there are lots of antitheses used in poetry throughout history.

      Take a look at the two-part structures and conceptual contrasts from some of the world’s best-known poems:

      "Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n"Paradise Lost, John Milton, 1667
      “Much Madness is divinest Sense” – 620, Emily Dickinson
      “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice” – Fire And Ice, Robert Frost, 1920

      Occasionally, a writer might even make use of a triple antithesis:

      “Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase; / Without this, folly, age, and cold decay” – Sonnet 11, William Shakespeare, 1609

      Antithesis in speeches

      Of course, what works on paper often works in its spoken form too. Some of the best speeches of all time can thank, at least in part, antithesis for their success.

      “That’s one small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind” – Neil Armstrong, 1969
      “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” – Martin Luther King Jr, 1964
      “On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” – Barack Obama, 2009

      Antithesis in advertising

      Marketers love to make us remember how truly wonderful their services or products are. Antithesis provides marketers with a powerful tool: contrast to underline a unique selling proposition (USP) and a memorable rhythm. That’s why you’ll find the path to marketing gold is littered with antitheses: the antithesis is the life-blood of the tagline or slogan.

      Take a look at how each of these taglines uses a parallel structure and creates opposition:

      Small business. Big future” – Santander
      Heavy on features. Light on price” – Apple
      Tough on stains. Gentle on skin” – Persil
      Less calories; more taste” – So Good
      “Inspired by yesterday, built for tomorrow” – Nokia
      All of the taste. None of the sugars” – Alpro
      Smart listens to the head. Stupid listens to the heart” – Diesel

      Antithesis, chiasmus and parallelism – what are the differences?

      Parallelism, sometimes called parallel structure or parallel construction, is the repetition of grammatical structures in a piece of writing in order to create a balanced, harmonious effect.

      Parallelism requires only the repeated grammatical structure, while antithesis uses the content – you can’t set up opposing concepts by only using the structure!

      Look at this example, “They have plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns – all while caring for their own oceans and cities.” The beginning of this statement repeats the same structure while changing the verbs and nouns. It doesn’t create a contrast between each clause or suggest any form of opposition. That’s the key difference between other forms of parallelism and antithesis: parallelism doesn’t need to present opposites, but antithesis is all about the opposites.

      If a similar phrase was written using antitheses, it might read something like this. “They have plundered our seas; but have nurtured their seas. They ravaged our coasts; they cared for their own. They burnt our towns while they built their cities.” In the ‘antithesis version’, each clause is juxtaposed with another concept to create impact. You can hear how much more powerful the second phrase is if you read both versions out loud.

      While antithesis is parallelism, not all parallelism is antithesis! For example, chiasmus is also a form of parallelism. In fact, it’s sometimes described as an inverted parallelism and happens when word order or grammatical structure is reversed in two phrases. For example, the phrase, “Do I love you because you are beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” qualifies as a parallelism and a chiasmus but there’s no opposition so it’s not an antithesis.

      Antithesis, chiasmus and parallelism

      Semantix’s copywriting toolkit

      Our copywriting toolkit is a valuable resource for anyone aiming to improve their writing skills. It contains definitions and examples of rhetorical devices in action, with guidelines on how and why they are used.

      Using rhetorical devices, such as antitheses, is a time-proven method of taking your writing to another level and making sure that your words are impactful, memorable and effective. Whether you’re writing for pleasure or writing for business, they create drama and keep your readers or listeners engaged.

      Semantix’s copywriting services

      As the leading language solution provider in the Nordics, language is our passion. Every day, we help our clients reach new target audiences and enter new global marketplaces. We believe that language should be used as an opportunity to boost business and never be seen as a barrier.

      Our copywriting services are available in more than 200 languages, and we only work with native-speaking translators. By matching you with a multilingual copywriter with experience in your specific industry, we’ll help you make every word work hard for your business in every language.

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      Further reading

      • A Handlist Of Rhetorical Terms – Richard Lanham, University of California Press, 2013
      • Simplified Glossary Of Literary Terms/Devices: An Easy-To-Use Source Of Definitions, Examples And Exercises For Students And Teachers – Victor Igiri, 2022
      • The Oxford Dictionary Of Literary Terms (Oxford Quick Reference) 4th Edition – Chris Baldick, OUP Oxford, 2015
      • The Elements Of Eloquence – Mark Forsyth, Icon Books, 2013
      • The Elements Of Rhetoric – Ryan N S Topping, Angelico Press, 2016
      • The Penguin Dictionary Of Literary Terms And Literary Theory – J A Cuddon, Penguin, 2014
      • The Rhetorical Device: Literary Resources For The Writer Vol. 1 of 2 – Paul F Kisak, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016
      • Writing With Clarity And Style: A Guide To Rhetorical Devices For Contemporary Writers – Robert A Harris, Routledge, 2017
      • The Use Of Rhetorical Devices In Selected Speeches by Clinton & Trump: Discourse From The Electoral Campaign 2016 – Larissa Wolf, AV Akademikerverlag, 2018