Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Weekly writing coach: Get nimble with contranyms

Contranyms, sometimes called auto-antonyms or antagonyms, mean their opposite when used in different contexts. Think "cleave:"  You cleave or cut something in two, but wedding ceremonies tell couples to "cleave unto one another." No, they're not suggesting dismemberment, but togetherness and fidelity.

Once you start looking for them, as author Rose Levy Guyer did, you'll find plenty:  Sanction (allow or punish), seed (to sow seeds, or to remove them), dust (another case of removing or adding particles), and more.  Roy Peter Clark, whose new book is The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English, also demonstrates a fascination with contranyms in this interview.  (Link revised--thanks alert readers!) 

Writers can use contranyms in a variety of ways (though rarely with both uses in the same document). You can add them to your list of words to flag to be sure the context and meaning are clear, or, with equal care, use them to spice up your writing and word choices.  Speechwriters might do the best with contranyms, which allow the speaker to make a contrast and to explain it, using the two opposites to make a point stand out.  (Affiliate link.)

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