Antonyms may be defined as two or more words of the same language belonging to the same part of speech and to the same semantic field, identical in style and nearly identical in distribution, associated and often used together so that their denotative meanings render contradictory or contrary notions.
§ Contradictory notions are mutually opposed and denying one another, e. g. alive means ‘not dead’ and impatient means ‘not patient’.
§ Contrary notions are also mutually opposed but they are gradable, e. g. old and young are the most distant elements of a series like: old : : middle-aged : : young.
Another classification of antonyms is based on a morphological approach:
§ root words form absolute antonyms (right : : wrong),
§ the presence of negative affixes creates derivational antonyms (happy : : unhappy).
The important question of criteria received a new and rigorously linguistic treatment in V.N. Komissarov’s work. Keeping to the time-honoured classification of antonyms into absolute or root antonyms (love : : hate) and derivational antonyms, V.N. Komissarov breaks new ground by his contextual treatment of the problem. Two words, according to him, shall be considered antonymous if they are regularly contrasted in actual speech, that is if the contrast in their meanings is proved by definite types of contextual co-occurrence.
Another important criterion suggested by V.N. Komissarov is the possibility of substitution and identical lexical valency.
Members of the same antonymic pair reveal nearly identical spheres of collocation. For example the adjective hot in its figurative meaning of ‘angry’ and ‘excited’is chiefly combined with names of unpleasant emotions: anger, resentment, scorn, etc. Its antonym cold occurs with the same words.
Unlike synonyms, antonyms do not differ either in style, emotional colouring or distribution. They are interchangeable at least in some contexts. The result of this interchange may be of different kind depending on the conditions of context. There will be, for instance, no change of meaning if ill and well change places within the sentence in the following: But whether he treated it ill or well, it loved nothing so much as to be near him (Wells). Or a whole sentence receives an opposite meaning when a word is replaced by its antonym, although it differs from its prototype in this one word only: You may feel he is clever : : You may feel he is foolish.
As antonyms do not differ stylistically, an antonymic substitution never results in a change of stylistic colouring.
In dealing with antonymic oppositions it may be helpful to treat antonyms in terms of “marked” and “unmarked” members. The unmarked member can be more widely used and very often can include the referents of the marked member but not vice versa. This proves that their meanings have some components in common. In the antonymic pair old : : young the unmarked member is old. It is possible to ask: How old is the girl? without implying that she is no longer young. Some authors, J.Lyons among them, suggest a different terminology. They distinguish antonyms proper and complementary antonyms. The chief characteristic feature of antonyms proper is that they are regularly gradable. Antonyms proper, therefore, represent contrary notions. The semantic polarity in antonymy proper is relative, the opposition is gradual, it may embrace several elements characterised by different degrees of the same property. The comparison they imply is clear from the context.
Having noted the difference between complementary antonyms and antonyms proper, we must also take into consideration that they have much in common so that in a wider sense both groups are taken as antonyms. Complementaries like other antonyms are regularly contrasted in speech and the elements of a complementary pair have similar distribution. The assertion of a sentence containing an antonymous or complementary term implies the denial of a corresponding sentence containing the other antonym or complementary:
The poem is good → The poem is not bad (good : : bad — antonyms proper)
This is prose → This is not poetry (prose : : poetry — complementaries)
As to the difference in negation it is optional with antonyms proper: by saying that the poem is not good the speaker does not always mean that it is positively bad. Thus, the second group of antonyms is known as derivational antonyms. The affixes in them serve to deny the quality stated in the stem. E. g. appear : : disappear; happiness : : unhappiness; logical : : illogical; pleasant : : unpleasant; prewar : : postwar; useful : : useless, etc. There are typical affixes and typical patterns that go into play in forming these derivational antonyms. It is significant that in the examples given above prefixes prevail. The regular type of derivational antonyms contains negative prefixes: dis-, il-/im-/in-/ir-, nоn- and un-. Other negative prefixes occur in this function only occasionally.
As to the suffixes, it should be noted that modern English gives no examples of words forming their antonyms by adding a negative suffix, such as, for instance, -less. The opposition hopeless : : hopeful or useless : : useful is more complicated, as the suffix -less is not merely added to the contrasting stem, but substituted for the suffix -ful.
The difference between absolute and derivational antonyms is not only morphological but semantic as well. To reveal its essence it is necessary to turn to logic. A pair of derivational antonyms form a privative binary opposition, whereas absolute antonyms, as we have already seen, are polar members of a gradual opposition which may have intermediary elements, the actual number of which may vary from zero to several units, e. g. beautiful : : pretty : : good-looking : : plain : : ugly.
Many antonyms are explained by means of the negative particle: clean — not dirty, shallow — not deep. Syntactic negation by means of this particle is weaker than the lexical antonymy. Compare: not happy : : unhappy; not polite : : impolite; not regular : : irregular; not to believe : : to disbelieve.
Almost every word can have one or more synonyms. Comparatively few have antonyms. This type of opposition is especially characteristic of qualitative adjectives. Like synonyms they occupy an important place in the phraseological fund of the language: backwards and forwards, far and near, from first to last, in black and white, play fast and loose, etc. Not only words, but set expressions as well, can be grouped into antonymic pairs. The phrase by accident can be contrasted to the phrase on purpose.
Antonyms form mostly pairs, not groups like synonyms: above : : below; absent : : present; absence : : presence; alike : : different; asleep : : awake; back : : forth; bad : : good; big : : little, etc. Cases when there are three or more words are reducible to a binary opposition, so that hot is contrasted to cold and warm to cool.
Polysemantic words may have antonyms in some of their meanings and none in the others. Also in different meanings a word may have different antonyms. Compare for example: a short story : : a long story but a short man : : a tall man; be short with somebody : : be civil with somebody.
Semantic polarity presupposes the presence of some common semantic components in the denotational meaning. Thus, while ashamed means ‘feeling unhappy or troubled because one has done something wrong or foolish’, its antonym proud also deals with feeling but the feeling of happiness and assurance which also has its ground in moral values. A synonymic set of words is an opposition of a different kind: its basis is sameness or approximate sameness of denotative meaning, the distinctive features can be stylistic, emotional, distributional or depending on valency.
The relation to which the name of conversives is usually given may be exemplified by such pairs as buy : : sell; give : : receive; ancestor : : descendant; parent : : child; left : : right; cause : : suffer; saddening : : saddened. Conversives denote one and the same referent or situation as viewed from different points of view, with a reversal of the order of participants and their roles. The interchangeability and contextual behaviour are specific. The relation is closely connected with grammar, namely with grammatical contrast of active and passive. The substitution of a conversive does not change the meaning of a sentence if it is combined with appropriate regular morphological and syntactical changes and selection of appropriate prepositions: He gave her flowers. She received flowers from him. = She was given flowers by him.