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40 Words You Think Are Antonyms but Aren’t

At first glance, some words may seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, but once you dive deeper you'll find out they really aren't. Here are 20 pairs that are commonly misused.

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Complete opposites

While your dictionary or thesaurus may list a pair of words as antonyms, there’s a chance they really aren’t diametric opposites. For example, the opposite of cold is hot, not warm. Before you drop a word in as an antonym, look beyond the first definition and think about precisely what you want to convey. Watch out for these 70 words and phrases that you’re probably using all wrong.

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Something can be useless for a particular task even while it is fully operative, aka, functioning, or in working order. Useful is the best word to express the opposite of useless. Example: New batteries made the television remote operative but it was completely useless as a hairbrush. Here are 41 little grammar rules you can follow to sound smarter.

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Since worthless means of no value, its antonym is of great merit or value, not just passable or adequate. Example: The barren tree was worthless as shelter from the rain but the abandoned shed provided adequate cover for a while.

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It is possible to understand or comprehend something yet be unable to explain it correctly, the primary definition of misinterpret. Example: Reading the CliffsNotes helped me understand Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I know Jackie understood the novel even though her book report misinterpreted its central tenets. Try these fancy words if you want to sound smarter.

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The word wily dates back to Middle English and describes a character as cagey, slick, cunning, or devious; dumb refers to intellect. Examples: The wily salesman convinced customers to buy insurance they didn’t need and couldn’t afford. John isn’t dumb; he simply refuses to study. Learn the origins of today’s most popular slang.

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While concede—to acknowledge grudgingly or hesitantly—requires action or an expressed admission, one can fail to agree or have a disagreement that’s unexpressed or privately held. Rebuff or reject are better antonyms for concede. Example: I concede that the speech was boring but we disagree on how best to fix it. Learn about the 15 words that have completely changed meaning.

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Invective—insulting or abusive language—is expressed or conveyed, whereas respect is an attitude or feeling of consideration or high regard. Example: Maria had great respect for Michael before he delivered a speech that was long on invective and short on facts. Here are 20 words even smart people mispronounce.

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Contemplate, defined as to view or consider with continued attention, requires deliberate action, whereas overlook or to fail to notice indicates unintentionality. Disregard or dismiss are more direct opposites. Example: I spent days contemplating why I wasn’t invited to the wedding until I realized I had overlooked the invitation in the mail. Grammar nerds will get a laugh at these 12 thesaurus jokes.

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To mollify or gain the goodwill of requires an intended effort, whereas annoying can be unintentional. Example: Georgina did her best to mollify the boss’ wife whenever she came to the office. Brad had no idea how much his poor table manners annoyed his wife. Dictionary editors say this is the most misused word in the English language.

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It is possible to offer praise (to verbally express a favorable opinion) in a pontificating manner (speaking or expressing opinions in a pompous or dogmatic way). Example: My tennis partner pontificates at length about her daughter’s brilliance. I find this excessive praise a bit over the top. Learning the rules of how not to use a thesaurus can help ensure you’re using the right words.

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Tolerate, to fail to prevent an action or behavior from neglect or indifference, is passive, while to prohibit—to forbid by authority—necessitates action. Example: The boss tolerated Ed’s lecherous antics because he was too busy with the expansion to notice. The new work policy prohibits inter-office dating and sexual harassment. Don’t miss these 33 middle school vocabulary words adults get wrong.

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To articulate is the ability to speak with clarity, but evasive implies something untoward or dishonest, not merely unclear. Example: Once the background check was complete, we understood why Jane was so evasive about her work history. Dennis was the best person to articulate our position because he was well-versed in the details.

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A luxury is something expensive or desirable but not essential whereas cheap simply means low-price or of poor quality. The opposite of luxury is a necessity; expensive is the opposite of cheap. Example: The going-out-of-business sale priced the dresses so cheap, I bought three, which made them a luxury purchase. Think this pair is confusing? Some words are their own opposites!

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Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow for another, similar to compassion. Retribution, on the other hand, is an act of punishment. Example: The juror expressed sympathy about the defendant’s traumatic childhood but felt the retribution he received for his crime was just. Find out how words get added to the dictionary.

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The potency is a measure of impact or effect whereas mild is a measure of strength. It is possible to be strong and ineffectual and mild and powerful. Example: Her reputation for vengefulness was so potent that even her mild reproach left her employees with a feeling of dread. These trendy slang words need to end ASAP.

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Accept, meaning to receive with favor, and dissent, to disagree or withhold assent, are not mutually exclusive and, therefore, not opposites. Example: Although George gladly accepted the appointment, he took great pains to voice his dissent about the chair’s proposed plans. Reading the dictionary is a great way to boost your vocabulary. Here’s about how long that would take.

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While an eccentric may deviate from conventional or accepted conduct, this quirkiness doesn’t indicate an unhealthy or irrational mind; a person can be both sane and eccentric. Example: Many people described Steve Jobs as eccentric but his sanity was never in question. Find the most frequently searched synonyms and antonyms.

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Lament means mourning aloud or wailing whereas enjoyment—to take pleasure or satisfaction in—need not be. Example: Joy’s roommate seemed to enjoy her never-ending lament of her break-up with Frank. Boost your word wisdom even more with these pairs of words everyone thinks are synonyms—but really aren’t.

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Ascend is a deliberate, upward movement using one’s own power; a fall is a precipitous descent caused by gravity. Example: The hiker’s careful ascent up the mountain almost ended in a bad fall when the rock gave way.

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While independents may not be officially affiliated with any political party, they are often very partisan. In this case, nonpartisan is the best antonym. Example: While roughly 40 percent of Americans identify as independents, the vast majority have a consistent partisan lean. Learn the history of the very first thesaurus.

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It is possible to be both inscrutable, unknowable or difficult to understand, and incontestable, aka certain, incontrovertible, or inarguable. Example: Einstein’s theory of relativity may be inscrutable for most but it remains incontestable more than a hundred years later. Are you using the correct word? You may not be—these 11 words and phrases don’t mean what you think.

Melba Newsome
Melba Newsome is an award-winning writer, journalist, editor, social media and communications professional. She has been widely published and is skilled at content creation in a many formats for variety of clients.