Crucial to the way we view the world is our perception of which things we see as being the same, and which we see as being somehow opposite to each other. This is reflected in our use of language, which provides us with words and grammatical structures that allow us to represent what things we see as being equivalent and what things we see as being contrasting.
One way in which language allows us to equate and contrast is through synonyms and antonyms. Synonyms are pairs or groups of words that share a similar meaning. While it is doubtful that any two words in the language share precisely the same meaning, speakers are easily able to think of pairs or groups of words that could be used to refer to the same thing, e.g. 'poorly', 'sick' and 'ill', or 'roll', 'bap' and 'teacake'. Antonyms, on the other hand, are pairs of words that are considered to be opposites. The seemingly 'common sense' nature of many antonyms suggests that we have an intuitive sense for binaries, e.g. 'hot' and 'cold', 'black' and 'white', 'backwards' and 'forwards'.
Equivalence can be expressed not only through synonymy, but also in a number of other ways. One is apposition, whereby two noun phrases are used where one would be grammatically sufficient, with each referring to the same thing. For example, if we are told that 'the MP, a representative of the liberal party, set out her policies', we understand that the noun phrases 'the MP' and 'a representative of the liberal party' refer to the same person, and that both have been included in order to give us more detail about the referent (although we should always be aware that there may be other, possibly ideological, reasons for such a choice). See the introduction to Naming and describing for more on how noun phrases can be ideologically-charged.
The potential of equating to colour a hearer or reader's perspective on a particular subject can be seen in the following headline, which uses apposition to portray the British prime Minister in a particular light:
This headline, taken from a report in the British Express newspaper, opens an article on Cameron's 2012 cabinet reshuffle. By placing 'David Cameron' and 'the axeman' in apposition, the headline equates the Prime Minister with someone ruthless and bloodthirsty. Further, the axeman metaphor allows the reporter to suggest that Cameron has an especially murderous attitude to the more right-wing members of his party, with the use of the adverbial 'to the right' to describe what it is that he is attacking.
We can also equate things through use of the copular verb to be and through parallel structures. The former allows us to make the equation of two things the very proposition of a sentence - 'The faltering economy may be the death of this government', or 'The Olympics is a political event'. Parallel structures, meanwhile, use two grammatically similar propositions to suggest that two things are similar. In the following example, the subject and predicate are the same in each sentence, making for an implied equivalence between the two different objects: 'The voters like eccentric politicians. The voters like the mayor'. While neither sentence explicitly says anything about the mayor's character, the grammatical equivalence of 'eccentric politicians' and 'the mayor' will lead the reader to understans that the mayor must be eccentric.
The different ways of creating opposition through language are varied. There are a number of general categories of opposition, each of which tends to be realised by particular syntactic 'triggers'. One category familiar from the discussion of equivalence is parallelism, which can be used to express opposition as well as equivalence, as in 'The government is hell-bent on dismantling the state. The opposition is keen to find ways to support those in need'. As with the synonymy example above, identical grammatical structures are the trigger that allows the reader to understand that two things are being presented as equivalent/contrasting: 'The government' and 'the opposition' are taken to be 'natural' opposites in democratic politics, and so they would understand that being 'hell-bent on dismantling the state' and 'keen to find ways to support those in need' are being presented as somehow opposite, mutually exclusive aims.
|Negated opposition||X not Y||'It was cheap propaganda, not thoughtful policies'|
|Transitional opposition||Turn X into Y||'What started out as a quiet demonstration turned into a pitched battle'|
|Comparative opposition||More X than Y||'It was more bloody combat than considered debate'|
|Replacive opposition||X instead of Y||'We need understanding, not animosity'|
|Concessive opposition||Despite X, Y||'Despite the chancellor's best efforts, the economy appears to be recovering'|
|Explicit opposition||X by contrast with Y||'Democracy by contrast with corrupt autocracy'|
|Contrastives||X, but Y||'The budget is harsh, but fair'|
Most readers will likely recognise that there is a sense of opposition in the examples above, even though there is no one 'trigger' that indicates when an opposition is being created. This is in part because constructed opposites tend to line up neatly under more conventional 'superordinate' opposites, such as 'good' and 'bad'. For example, in 'We need understanding, not animosity', there is a clear implication that understanding is desirable and animosity is undesirable; we could go further up, and suggest that, ultimately, desirable is good and undesirable is bad. By making these analogies with opposites we are already aware of, we are able to understand quite unusual pairings of antonyms.
By using the opposition triggers listed above, speakers and writers are able to take advantage (consciously or not) of our readiness to see things in binaries. Entirely original, constructed oppositions can be devised, in the knowledge that hearers/readers will be able to understand them on analogy with other, more commonplace oppositions. The motivation for a constructed opposition may, of course, be ideological. This is clearly the case with the use of constructed opposition in an article called 'Can Anything Be Done to Stop Gay Rights?', published on the Family Research Institute's website. At one point, its author, Dr Paul Cameron, states that "The United States is not the Germany of the Weimar Republic, but we are now telling our children... that homosexuality is an acceptable alternative to traditional marriage". Here, Cameron uses contrastive opposition to make a point about what he perceives as the hedonism of the US: while the US is not Weimar Republic-era Germany, it is the kind of place that considers homosexuality to be acceptable. As part of a wide-ranging attack on homosexuality, Cameron is proposing the existence of a scale at one end of which reside countries that teach that homosexuality is acceptable, and the other countries that teach (correctly, in his view) that it is not acceptable. In the context of the article, it is clear which end of the scale Cameron would wish the US to reside at, and this particular instance of creative opposition is part of an attempt to scare the reader, whom Cameron assumes will be aware that being like Weimar Republic-era Germany would be undesirable.
Out of the categories of opposition outlined above, transitional opposition is particularly prevalent in certain parts of the media and our culture. Look out for it in advertising, where it is often used to outline the transformative effects of, for example, cosmetics. Also look out for it in television programmes – in particular, reality television programmes or series that focus on 'self-improvement' or on-going competitions. What oppositions are talked about, and what 'superordinate' conventional opposites – 'naive' and 'wise', 'good' and 'bad' – do they seem to line up under? What do these imply about what we should desire in life?
Davies looks at linguistic opposition in news coverage of anti-Iraq demonstrations:
Davies, Matt. 2007. "The Attraction of Opposites: The Ideological Function of Conventional and Created Opposites in the Construction of In-groups and Out-groups in News Texts." In Stylistics and Social Cognition, ed. by Lesley Jeffries, Dan McIntyre and Derek Bousfield, 71-100. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Jeffries, Lesley. .2010. Opposition in Discourse: The Construction of Oppositional Meaning. London: Continuum.