Of attractive women and unattractive men. A linguistic study of perfect antonymy in two-word phrases

Term Paper, 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0







Theoretical Discussion and Conclusion



In the English (and any other) language, antonymy belongs to the most interesting aspects which linguists may come across. Human beings think and speak in categories. Thus, they classify every word into groups by referring to one or several (suppositionally) equal characteristics of these words. In this respect, antonymy is simply a particular manner of categorization, but a rather keen one for its being based on the strong (albeit rarely logical1 ) differentiation from other words. Consequently, an antonym cannot occur on its own terms; it always needs another word to which it refers.

Much has been written about antonymy (Lyons 1977, Cruse 1992, Cruse 1995, Murphy 2006 et. al.). Yet, as far as is known, no scientific study has ever been conducted of a phenomenon that is to be called perfect antonymy and is related to the antonymy of entire phrases. This concept means that all single parts of a group of, at least, two words are turned into the opposite, as can bee seen in [1iiid] of the example [Example 1].

[Example 1]:

It may already be admitted that perfect antonymy is utterly rarely used in day-to-day communication. Accordingly, the purpose of this paper will be to examine the reasons for this non-application. It will be demonstrated in a survey that speakers of the English language do not apply perfect antonymy in given two-word phrases,2 but rather use antonymy solely in order to change one member of the pair of words. Therefore, it is firstly to explain why this is so. The second question relates to the remarkable fact that the choice of which of the two words is turned into its opposition is not arbitrary. Hence, it is to be asked which word was reversed by the interviewees and why. Since research on perfect antonymy has not been done yet, this study is to motivate further examination of this fascinating field of linguistics in order to learn more about on which element of a phrase speakers focus most and how they use categorizations in order to classify what they wish to express.

In order to deal with the subject appropriately, it will be necessary, first, to provide definitions of what an antonym is and which kinds of antonyms occur. These definitions will be derived from current literature and completed by a closer look at perfect antonymy itself. Second, empirical data will be collected in relation to the subject. Third, the data has to be examined carefully, before, lastly, the findings are to be discussed and evaluated in the final chapter.


In this chapter, the terminology used in this paper shall be defined. It is mainly based on Griffiths (2006), Murphy (2006), and Crystal (2014). The term perfect antonymy has not been used so far in linguistics and will be therefore introduced and defined as well.

Antonymy is a paradigmatic relation between words which means that ‘antonym pairs form a contrastive paradigm within a semantic field, such that in contexts in which one member of the pair can occur, so could (with different truth conditions) the other member of the pair’ (Murphy 2006: 1). So, we can define an antonym as one word of a pair of words with opposite meanings (Crystal 2014a) which implies that each of these words represents the antithesis of the other. But, when using antonyms, speakers always remain in the same superordinate categories (e.g. the opposite of ‘man’ is considered ‘woman’ whereupon speakers remain in the category ‘human beings’).3

Antonyms are always related to cultural meaning (connotation), and not to linguistic meaning (denotation). They always betray a meaning that has been acquired by a specific culture and is therefore conventionally associated (Murphy 2006: 3). Otherwise it would be completely illogical to, for example, declare that a cat is to be the opposite of a dog when taken into account that nobody really can explain where exactly the difference between the two is supposed to be. Furthermore, many words do not have ‘natural’ opposites at all (e.g. door, bottle, March, etc.), whereas other words possess more than one possible opposite (e.g. opposite of ‘attractive’ could be ‘unattractive’ or ‘ugly’ or ‘unsightly’) (Crystal 2014b).

Antonyms have to be classified into three groups depending on their relationship concerning their opposition. These three groups are gradable antonyms, complementary (or ungradable) antonyms, and relational antonyms (also called converses).

Gradable antonyms are a particular sort of opposition between two words where the two meanings represent two ends of a continuous spectrum (Griffiths 2006: 30). Such continuous spectrum could be, for instance, temperature, so that cold and hot can be considered two opposing ends of thermal sensitivity. Let’s look at this example more carefully by using entailment: (a) It is cold in here. (b) It is not hot in here. While sentence (a) entails sentence (b), sentence (b) does not entail sentence (a) because there is a continuous spectrum between the two words. If it is not hot, it does not mean that it is cold (Griffiths 2006: 30). Other examples of gradable antonyms include young/old, fat/thin, or attractive/unattractive. An additional characteristic of gradable antonyms is their gradability (e.g. richer/poorer, or more comfortable/less comfortable). Furthermore, they can be qualified by adverbs (very comfortable, quite rich, etc.).

Complementary (or ungradable) antonyms describe the stark opposition between two words which divide their domain without overlapping (Griffiths 2006: 28). Unlike gradable antonyms, they do not represent two ends of a continuous spectrum since there is no region between them. Considering an example: It can be seen that there is no middle ground between ‘dead’ and ‘alive’. Neither of them is logically gradable (e.g. deader or more alive) nor logically qualifiable by adverbs (e.g. quite dead or slightly alive). Complementaries are defined more carefully in terms of a pattern of entailment as shown in the following example: (a) Paul is single. (b) Paul is not married. Sentence (a) entails sentence (b) as sentence (b) entails sentence (a). Someone who is single cannot be married. Single and married are not at either end of a continuous spectrum (Griffiths 2006: 28).

A relational (or converse) antonym is one word of a pair with opposite meanings where the opposition solely makes sense in the relational context between the meanings. Even though there seems to be no lexical opposite of ‘teacher’, ‘pupil’ appears as opposite within the context of their relationship. Thus, relational antonyms are pairs of words where one word presupposes another (Crystal 2014b). Additional examples are husband/wife, buy/sell, or interviewer/interviewee.

When it finally comes to perfect antonymy, literature is not helpful because linguists do not commonly use such a term. Therefore, it must be found a definition for this phenomenon at this point since it is the subject of this paper. Perfect antonymy emerges when the opposite of a given phrase (consisting of at least two words) logically includes all members of this phrase. Therefore, perfect antonymy is related to the antonymy of phrases, clauses, and sentences.

Let us come back again to the example [Example 1]4 introduced in the paragraph above:

[Example 1]:

It is obvious, as can be seen in [1i], that the opposite of a ‘woman’ is commonly understood as ‘man’ and of ‘attractive’ as ‘unattractive’ or ‘ugly’ (see [1ii]). That proves that precise antonyms of the words given in [1i] and [1ii] exist and are used in the English language. But what happens when the opposite of an entire two-word phrase like ‘attractive woman’ is to be expressed? People usually reply by replacing merely one word of the pair by its antonym (see [1iiib] and very seldom: [1iiic]) instead of both [1iiid] which would be perfect antonymy because of its inclusion of all words involved.

With this definition in mind, it can be led over to the study that has been conducted in order to examine why speakers of the English language did not apply at all perfect antonymy in given two-word phrases.


1 For further explanation see page 3.

2 Certainly, perfect antonymy can also occur in more complex phrases and sentences (e.g. She loves his son. – perfect antonymy: He hates her daughter.). Yet, it would go beyond the scope of this paper to additionally examine (the semantic context of) such complex structures as well.

3 An example of leaving the subordinate category would be to name ‘wind’ as the opposite of ‘man’.

4 This example has been taken from the study realized in this paper and is therefore empirically valid. Yet, for the purpose of explaining the term perfect antonymy, it has been slightly adapted.

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Of attractive women and unattractive men. A linguistic study of perfect antonymy in two-word phrases
Free University of Berlin  (Englische Philologie)
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Antonym, Antonymy, Opposite, Opposition, Linguistics, Semantics, Study, case study, two-word phrases, survey, contrast, Gegensatz, Gegensatzpaar, perfect, perfect antonymy, perfect antonym, perfektes Gegensatzpaar, semantic, linguistik, linguistisch, attractive unattractive, unique study, perfection
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Dominik Jesse (Author), 2014, Of attractive women and unattractive men. A linguistic study of perfect antonymy in two-word phrases, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/294745


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