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oppositesThe relation of opposition that holds between pairs of words in (presumably all) the world’s languages could easily be seen as nothing more than the linguistic reflection of a human tendency towards binaries. Is this tendency innate or acquired? We may need psychologists to tell us, though the fact that we teach children to recognise opposites from a young age implies that the content of opposing pairs, at least, is acquired. The large number of board books for toddlers which are about opposites demonstrates this vividly.

Opposites are pairs of words that reflect the physical realities of life (hot-cold; go-come; alive-dead) but they also encode social norms (husband-wife; borrow-lend) as well as moral values (good-bad; right-wrong) and political ideologies (communist-capitalist). Many of what we could call 'conventional' opposites exist independently of any context. We can recognise conventional opposites as a pair without additional text around them and even if only one of the opposites is used, we can produce the other. What is the opposite of win or fat? We know the answer in general terms (lose, thin).

These conventional opposites also form the background against which we regularly construct – and interpret – 'new' opposite pairings in texts and utterances on a daily basis. Thus, an utterance like 'it was a dishwasher, not a sports-car' when discussing a long-anticipated birthday present lines up a domestic – and somewhat boring – machine as being opposed to a symbol of youth, independence and fun. Though there is no conventional opposite, out of context, between a sports car and a dishwasher, nevertheless in this context we readily understand that they are meant to line up with the more conventional pairings of:

good bad
fun boring
youthful old and staid
sports car dishwasher

So, if we a) recognise and use conventional opposites and b) produce and interpret opposites which are produced in context, we might ask whether such textual practices have a role in producing and sustaining conflicts. Is it possible that analysing the way in which such textually-produced opposites operate might show us ways of transforming conflicts into a less violent or intractable form?
Before considering some examples relating to conflict situations, I will introduce the idea of different kinds of opposite. The opposites we tend to teach children first are usually called 'gradable antonyms' by linguists:


These pairs are always adjectives and they represent the notional ends of a scale in each case. Despite this, and even though languages sometimes label the intervening points on the scale (warm....cool), gradable antonyms do not seem to function as the prototypical opposites. A more prototypical kind of opposite is known to linguists as the 'complementary opposite' which involves a pair of words which are mutually exclusive, and therefore not gradable:

alive/dead   man/woman   awake/asleep

These pairs of words between them cover the options – you are either one or the other and not both. Thus, within the realm of human beings, you can only be a man or a woman. Trans-gender and inter-gender people may exist, but for now the language treats the two main gender identities as mutually-exclusive. Similarly, in the field of living things, animals are either alive or dead, and though we may sometimes say "I feel half-dead", this does not change the fact that English treats these conditions as incompatible. Even though we can imagine alive.........dead being gradable, this is not how the words work in normal usage. If we did treat being alive as a gradable concept, then one extreme of the scale would imply being 'completely dead' and the other would imply some kind of abundant liveliness – something like being 'fully alive'. This is the kind of adaptation of meaning that texts sometimes produce, treating what is conventionally expressed as an exclusive kind of opposite as a gradable one.

We can also transfer the kind of opposition we use in other directions. For example, we can treat gradable antonyms as though they were complementary:

It's not hot (i.e. it's cold)
It's long (i.e. not short)

This tendency for even common gradable opposites to be interpreted as mutually exclusive (complementary) could be of significance in conflict studies and mediation. If there is a tendency to reduce all difference down to the mutually exclusive type, then it is no wonder that conflicts arise from all sorts of relatively minor differences - of opinion, cultural practices or vested interests.

The logical test for complementaries is to see whether negating one of them produces the other:

not alive = dead
not a woman = a man

So, these opposites describe things or qualities that cannot co-occur. But another kind of opposite, the 'converse', is defined by the ability of the two opposite terms to co-exist. They are therefore mutually dependent rather than mutually exclusive:


Thus, if someone is buying, someone must be selling and where there is a mother, there must be a child. It is as though each word in the pair 'looks at' the situation from a different angle.

Imagine if conflicts or disagreements which are based on the mutually exclusive interests of two warring parties could instead be understood as simply two different ways of viewing the same situation. Perhaps this could be the starting point of change towards a less intractable conflict situation?

Let us return to the notion of 'unconventional opposites' in texts. If a conflict is starting out in the news, it is perhaps not a surprise to find that, for example in the Libyan uprising, the reports talked of Gaddafi supporters on the one hand and the rebels on the other. This tendency to see conflicts in terms of two opposing factions may reflect reality on occasion, but often it is far from accurate. The result is that the narrative of a war, played out on the international scene, leaves governments and the population of their countries feeling that they have no option but to side with one or other of these over-simplified parties to the conflict. President Bush, for example, is famous for his comment "either you are with us or you are with the terrorists" in the wake of 9/11. Whilst it was understandable that there was extreme emotion in that situation, the onlookers were not all comfortable being told that if they did not agree with everything the US did, they were as bad as terrorists.

The way in which texts create new opposites is to use one of a number of textual cues – or triggers – which indicate to the reader that the words or phrases concerned are to be interpreted as opposites. Here are two of the main types of opposition trigger:


If you put almost any words into the following structures at the points indicated by X and Y, you will find that they seem to be oppositional:

It was X, not Y (It was spontaneous, not crazy)
They wanted an X not a Y (They wanted a saucepan, not a philosophy)
You said you would X, not Y (You said you would read a book, not go ice skating)

What happens in the case of textually-produced opposites is that the context usually provides an explanation for why the unconventional opposites should be seen in this light. Thus, we might imagine that the first example takes place when someone is justifying their actions as being a result of fast reactions rather than irrational decision-making (spontaneous/crazy). The second example makes us reach for the underlying conventional opposition of practical (saucepan) versus theoretical (philosophy) to explain how it might be relevant.

Parallel structures

As well as negation, the use of repeated structures can produce the effect of opposition where words are juxtaposed in similar positions in the sentence:

"Labour say he's black. We say he's British."

This slogan from the Conservative Party's election campaign in 1983 showed a photo of a black (or sometimes an Asian) man and constructed the opposition between black and British by putting these words into the same slot in a parallel structure where the subject of the sentence (Labour/Tories) is a conventional opposite (at least in British political life). Their aim, to claim that they were more inclusive than Labour, whilst actually constructing a conceptual opposite where black and British are complementary and thus mutually exclusive, was to win votes from both wings of their party.

Why do these things matter? Well, because the textual construction of opposites affects the way we see the world, and not just in relation to the difference between dishwashers and sports cars! If, as human beings, we have a dominant tendency towards dividing the world into mutually exclusive binary opposites, then we clearly also have the ability to do other things, like see the world through gradable scales or mutually dependent converses, as the evidence of our language demonstrates. Though the differences between these kinds of opposite might seem rather obscure at first, once we are alerted to them, we can start to think about how we might re-cast disagreements as ones where there could indeed be some middle ground (gradable) or where we learn to see the situation from the 'other' side's point of view as well as our own (converses). Teaching awareness of these conceptual differences can help parties in conflict to reflect on what really keeps them from resolving their differences.


To learn more about opposition, visit the Equating and contrasting section of the Linguistic Toolbox.


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Comments (2)
  • Biljana Scott  - Not X but Y: from pre-emptive to police-speak
    I very much enjoyed the way in which this article stitches a close analysis of linguistic forms to the broader issues of conflict creation and resolution.

    I attempted to do something similar in a recent analysis of Obama's use of the Not X but Y construction in his January 2013 Inaugural speech:http://www.diplomacy.edu/blog/obama’s-2013-inaugural-doctor’s-diagnosis

    And I notice two further examples of 'Negation' in a BBC article by Charles Nevin today which will raise a smile: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22295624

    US dog handler at LA airport to a Briton who made to pat the cute doggie:"Do not touch the federal agent!"

    Back in the UK, a "car is waiting at traffic lights to proceed in a direction clearly marked as being for the use of buses alone.
    A police car pulls up alongside. The officer at the wheel indicates that the window of the offending car should be opened. He then says: "Good evening, si...
  • Matthew Evans  - Obama
    Thanks Biscott, glad you enjoyed the article. Obama is a particularly big fan of opposition, isn't he?! I enjoyed your analysis of the particular effects of Obama's oppositions - especially the way it sets up a binary and undermines one side of it, pre-empting counterargument.

    Plenty of lists-of-three in the inaugural address, as well!
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