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Rhetorical devices: Antithesis -examples & definition

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What is antithesis?

When I heard that Neil Armstrong had died over the weekend, I immediately thought of his famous words, "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." You probably did the same. Why, out of all the miilions of words that he spoke in public, do we remember those so clearly?

Because they are one of the most famous examples of a rhetorical device called Antithesis, a technique where two contrasting or opposite ideas are deliberately placed next to each other.

It produces balance and emphasis and both help make your point memorable (which is the whole point of rhetoric, after all!). Think of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

I'll show you how you can use this in a business presentation later in this article, but first let's look at some famous examples.

All languages have 'natural' opposites in their vocabularies. In the USA, adolescents studying for the antonym section of their SAT learn to match words to their opposites. Many words have 'natural' opposites, such as old/new, up/down, hot/cold, brave/cowardly, etc. We are so familiar with this that we even attribute an opposite to many words where one doesn't exist in a literal case, e.g. dog/cat, sun/moon, winter/summer. Take the examples below, which all use direct, 'natural' opposites:

  • "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." - JFK
  • "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, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us ..." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
  • "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice, moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue" - Senator Barry Goldwater
  • "My only love sprung from my only hate" - Wm Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
  • "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here" - Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address"

However, antithesis doesn't have to use exact opposites; it is just as effective when using contrasts. In the examples below victory/celebration and party/freedom aren't opposites, as live/perish and brothers/fools aren't:

  • "We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom" - JFK, Inaugural Address
  • "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools" - Martin Luther King
  • "We find ourselves rich in goods but ragged in spirit, reaching with magnificent precision for the moon but falling into raucous discord on earth ......"- Richard Nixon, Inaugural Address

Many examples of antithesis use both opposites and contrasts:

  • "To err is human; to forgive, divine" - Alexander Pope
  • "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind" - Neil Armstrong
  • "Many are called, but few are chosen" -
  • "We are not destined to be adversaries. But it is not guaranteed that we will be allies" - Bill Clinton
  • "Americans want to see results instead of rhetoric . . . solutions instead of sound bites, and hard work instead of horse trading" - Alcee Hastings

Business example 1:

If you were trying to persuade people of the need to improve quality, you might want to say something like, "It's not just about price any more, its about quality." In looking at how this can be adapted using antithesis, we can see that 'price' and 'quality', while not opposites, are certainly contrasts. So if we introduce two verbs that are opposites, we'll have a nice contrasts/opposites balance as in many of the examples above.

The first verb that might spring to mind when thinking of price might be 'reducing', which we would naturally oppose with 'increasing.' But 'increasing' quality isn't grammatically correct; we would talk more about 'raising' quality. The opposite of this is 'lowering', which can be used with 'price' just as effectively as 'reducing'.

So the sentence can easily be changed to "It's not about lowering price any more, it's about raising quality." And hey presto! We have Antithesis!

Business example 2:

You might be trying to persuade people about the need to revisit something that you've tried in the past which failed. The first draft of your presentation might read something like, "What didn't work in the past may now work better than anything else."

In using Antithesis, we can easily contrast 'past' with either 'present' or 'future', but we also want to introduce two contrasting or opposing verbs. We could say, "What didn't work in the past could well work in the future," but this sounds clumsy. A better version would be, "The things that failed in the past could be the very things that succeed in the future."

Business example 3:

Let's say you're recalling some painful actions the company had to take in the previous year and your first draft contains the sentences, "We closed a factory, reduced spending across the company and suffered redundancies. We didn't want to do this, but we had no choice.”

It's a simple matter to change the second sentence so that it reads, "We closed a factory, reduced spending across the company and suffered redundancies. None of this was welcome, but all of it was necessary."

Business example 4:

A delegate at one of my seminars recently was giving a presentation which had the objective of persuading the audience that the economic growth of China was an opportunity rather than a threat. This was obviously tailor made for Antithesis, in that it was all about two contrasting ideas.

After careful revision we came up with the concluding words:

"I want you to see the Chinese not as enemies, but as friends; not as importers but as exporters; not as producers but as consumers. Above all, I want you to see China not as a threat, but as an opportunity."

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