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Sentence Examples Of Antithesis Statements

Definition of Antithesis

Antithesis is the use of contrasting concepts, words, or sentences within parallel grammatical structures. This combination of a balanced structure with opposite ideas serves to highlight the contrast between them. For example, the following famous Muhammad Ali quote is an example of antithesis: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” This is an antithesis example because there is the contrast between the animals and their actions (the peaceful floating butterfly versus the aggressive stinging bee) combined with the parallel grammatical structure of similes indicated by “like a.” Ali is indicating the contrasting skills necessary to be a good boxer.

Difference Between Antithesis and Juxtaposition

Antithesis is very similar to juxtaposition, as juxtaposition also sets two different things close to each other to emphasize the difference between them. However, juxtaposition does not necessarily deal with completely opposite ideas—sometimes the juxtaposition may be between two similar things so that the reader will notice the subtle differences. Juxtaposition also does not necessitate a parallel grammatical structure. The definition of antithesis requires this balanced grammatical structure.

Common Examples of Antithesis

The use of antithesis is very popular in speeches and common idioms, as the inherent contrasts often make antithesis quite memorable. Here are some examples of antithesis from famous speeches:

  • “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
  • “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” –John F. Kennedy Jr.
  • “We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” –Barack Obama
  • “Decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.” –Winston Churchill
  • “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” –Abraham Lincoln

Significance of Antithesis in Literature

Antithesis can be a helpful tool for the author both to show a character’s mindset and to set up an argument. If the antithesis is something that the character is thinking, the audience can better understand the full scope of that character’s thoughts. While antithesis is not the most ubiquitous of literary devices, some authors use antithesis quite extensively, such as William Shakespeare. Many of his sonnets and plays include examples of antithesis.

Examples of Antithesis in Literature

Example #1

HAMLET: To be, or not to be, that is the question—
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them?

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Arguably the most famous six words in all of Shakespeare’s work are an example of antithesis. Hamlet considers the important question of “to be, or not to be.” In this line, he is considering the very nature of existence itself. Though the line is quite simple in form it contrasts these very important opposite states. Hamlet sets up his soliloquy with this antithesis and continues with others, including the contrast between suffering whatever fortune has to offer or opposing his troubles. This is a good example of Shakespeare using antithesis to present to the audience or readers Hamlet’s inner life and the range of his thinking.

Example #2

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 spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

(A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)

The opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities employs many different literary devices all at once. There are many examples of antithesis back-to-back, starting with the first contrast between “the best of times” and “the worst of times.” Each pair of contrasting opposites uses a parallel structure to emphasize their differences. Dickens uses these antithetical pairs to show what a tumultuous time it was during the setting of his book. In this case, the use of antithesis is a rhetorical device that foreshadows the conflicts that will be central to the novel.

Example #3

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

In Joseph Heller’s classic anti-war novel Catch-22, Heller uses a specific type of humor in which antithetical statements show the true absurdity of war. This very famous quote explains the concept of the “Catch-22,” which became a popular idiomatic expression because of the book. In fact, this example is not so much an antithetical statement but instead an antithetical situation. That is to say, the two possible outcomes for Orr are opposite: either he’s deemed crazy and would thus not be forced to fly any more combat missions, or he’s sane and then would indeed have to fly them. However, the one situation negates the possibility of the other, as only a sane man would be clear-headed enough to ask not to fly more missions.

Example #4

This case is not a difficult one, it requires no minute sifting of complicated facts, but it does require you to be sure beyond all reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the defendant.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is a lawyer representing Tom Robinson. Atticus presents the above statement to the jury, setting up an antithesis. He asserts that the case is not difficult and yet requires the jury to be absolutely sure of their decision. Atticus believes the case to have a very obvious conclusion, and hopes that the jury will agree with him, but he is also aware of the societal tensions at work that will complicate the case.

Test Your Knowledge of Antithesis

1. What is the correct antithesis definition?
A. Using two very similar concepts and showing their subtle differences.
B. Setting up a contrast between two opposite ideas or phrases in a balanced grammatical structure.
C. Using words to convey an opposite meaning to their literal sense.

Answer to Question #1Show

Answer: B is the correct answer. A is one possible definition of juxtaposition, while C is one possible definition of irony.

2. What is the difference between antithesis and juxtaposition?
A. They are exactly the same device.
B. They are completely different literary devices.
C. Antithesis parallels opposite concepts, while juxtaposition sets up a comparison and contrast between two concepts that can be either similar or different.

Answer to Question #2Show

Answer: C is the correct answer.

3. Which of the following quotes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth contains an example of antithesis?

WITCHES: Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.


MACBETH: Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand?


WITCHES: Something wicked this way comes.

Answer to Question #3Show

Answer: A is the correct answer.

4. Which of the following quotes from Heller’s Catch-22 contains an example of antithesis?
A. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many counties can’t all be worth dying for.
B. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.
C. You’re inches away from death every time you go on a mission. How much older can you be at your age?

Answer to Question #4Show

Answer: B is the correct answer.

I. What is an Antithesis?

“Antithesis” literally means “opposite” – it is usually the opposite of a statement, concept, or idea. In literary analysis, an antithesis is a pair of statements or images in which the one reverses the other. The pair is written with similar grammatical structures to show more contrast. Antithesis (pronounced an-TITH-eh-sis) is used to emphasize a concept, idea, or conclusion.


II. Examples of Antithesis

Example 1

That’s one small step for a man – one giant leap for mankind. (Neil Armstrong, 1969)

In this example, Armstrong is referring to man walking on the moon. Although taking a step is an ordinary activity for most people, taking a step on the moon, in outer space, is a major achievement for all humanity.

Example 2

To err is human; toforgive, divine. (Alexander Pope)

This example is used to point out that humans possess both worldly and godly qualities; they can all make mistakes, but they also have the power to free others from blame.

Example 3

The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did (Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address)

In his speech, Lincoln points out that the details of that moment may not be memorable, but the actions would make history, and therefore, never entirely forgotten.

Antithesis can be a little tricky to see at first. To start, notice how each of these examples is separated into two parts. The parts are separated either by a dash, a semicolon, or the word “but.” Antithesis always has this multi-part structure (usually there are two parts, but sometimes it can be more, as we’ll see in later examples). The parts are not always as obvious as they are in these examples, but they will always be there.

Next, notice how the second part of each example contains terms that reverse or invert terms in the first part: small step vs. giant leap; human vs. divine; we say vs. they do. In each of the examples, there are several pairs of contrasted terms between the first part and the second, which is quite common in antithesis.

Finally, notice that each of the examples contains some parallel structures and ideas in addition to the opposites. This is key! The two parts are not simply contradictory statements. They are a matched pair that have many grammatical structures or concepts in common; in the details, however, they are opposites.

For example, look at the parallel grammar of Example 1: the word “one,” followed by an adjective, a noun, and then the word “for.” This accentuates the opposites by setting them against a backdrop of sameness – in other words, two very different ideas are being expressed with very, very similar grammatical structures.

To recap: antithesis has three things:

  • Two or more parts
  • Reversed or inverted ideas
  • (usually) parallel grammatical structure


III. The Importance of Verisimilitude

Antithesis is basically a complex form of juxtaposition. So its effects are fairly similar – by contrasting one thing against its opposite, a writer or speaker can emphasize the key attributes of whatever they’re talking about. In the Neil Armstrong quote, for example, the tremendous significance of the first step on the moon is made more vivid by contrasting it with the smallness and ordinariness of the motion that brought it about.

Antithesis can also be used to express curious contradictions or paradoxes. Again, the Neil Armstrong quote is a good example: Armstrong is inviting his listeners to puzzle over the fact that a tiny, ordinary step – not so different from the millions of steps we take each day – can represent so massive a technological accomplishment as the moon landing.

Paradoxically, an antithesis can also be used to show how two seeming opposites might in fact be similar.


IV. Examples of Verisimilitude in Literature

Example 1

Forgive us this day our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. (The Lord’s Prayer)

The antithesis is doing a lot of work here. First, it shows the parallel between committing an evil act and being the victim of one. On the surface, these are opposites, and this is part of the antithesis, but at the same time they are, in the end, the same act from different perspectives. This part of the antithesis is basically just an expression of the Golden Rule.

Second, the antithesis displays a parallel between the speaker (a human) and the one being spoken to (God). The prayer is a request for divine mercy, and at the same time a reminder that human beings should also be merciful.

Example 2

All the joy the world contains has come through wanting happiness for others. All the misery the world contains has come through wanting pleasure for yourself. (Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva)

The antithesis here comes with some pretty intense parallel structure. Most of the words in each sentence are exactly the same as those in the other sentence. (“All the ___ the world contains has come through wanting ____ for ____.”) This close parallel structure makes the antithesis all the more striking, since the words that differ become much more visible.

Another interesting feature of this antithesis is that it makes “pleasure” and “happiness” seem like opposites, when most of us might think of them as more or less synonymous. The quote makes happiness seem noble and exalted, whereas pleasure is portrayed as selfish and worthless.

Example 3

The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong (Jack London, Credo)

The opening antithesis here gets its punch from the fact that we think of living and existing as pretty similar terms. But for London, they are opposites. Living is about having vivid experiences, learning, and being bold; simply existing is a dull, pointless thing. These two apparently similar words are used in this antithesis to emphasize the importance of living as opposed to mere existing.

The second antithesis, on the other hand, is just the opposite – in this case, London is taking two words that seem somewhat opposed (waste and prolong), and telling us that they are in fact the same. Prolonging something is making it last; wasting something is letting it run out too soon. But, says London, when it comes to life, they are the same. If you try too hard to prolong your days (that is, if you’re so worried about dying that you never face your fears and live your life), then you will end up wasting them because you will never do anything worthwhile.


V. Examples of Verisimilitude in Pop Culture

Example 1

Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee. (Sara Lee pastry advertisement)

This classic ad uses antithesis to set up a deliberate grammatical error. This is a common technique in advertising, since people are more likely to remember a slogan that is grammatically incorrect. (Even if they only remember it because they found it irritating, it still sticks in their brain, which is all that an ad needs to do.) The antithesis helps make the meaning clear, and throws the grammatical error into sharper relief.

Example 2

What men must know, a boy must learn. (The Lookouts)

Here’s another example of how parallel structure can turn into antithesis fairly easily. (The structure is noun-“must”-verb.) The antithesis also expresses the basic narrative of The Lookouts, which is all about kids learning to fend for themselves and become full-fledged adults.

Example 3

Shut Your Mouth and Open Your Eyes (the band “AFI” – album title)

The antithesis here is a juxtaposition of two different actions (opening and shutting) that are actually part of the same sort of behavior – the behavior of somebody who wants to understand the world rather than be the center of attention. It’s basically a restatement of the old adage that “those who speak the most often have the least to say.”


VI. Related Terms


Antithesis is basically a form of juxtaposition. Juxtaposition, though, is a much broader device that encompasses any deliberate use of contrast or contradiction by an author. So, in addition to antithesis, it might include:

  • The scene in “The Godfather” where a series of brutal murders is intercut with shots of a baptism, juxtaposing birth and death.
  • “A Song of Ice and Fire” (George R. R. Martin book series)
  • Any one of a number of common expressions, including:
    • Heaven and Hell
    • Mountains and the sea
    • Dead or alive
    • “In sickness and in health”

Antithesis performs a very similar function, but does so in a more complicated way by using full sentences (rather than single words or images) to express the two halves of the juxtaposition.

Here is an antithesis built around some of the common expressions from above

  • Sheep go to Heaven; goats go to Hell.”
  • “Beethoven’s music is as mighty as the mountains and as timeless as the sea.”
  • “In sickness he loved me; in health he abandoned

Notice how the antithesis builds an entire statement around the much simpler juxtaposition. And, crucially, notice that each of those statements exhibits parallel grammatical structure. In this way, both Juxtaposition and parallel structures can be used to transform a simple comparison, into antithesis.

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