Rhetorical Devices: Antithesis

Antithesis refers to the juxtaposition of contrasting words or ideas (often, although not always, in a parallel structure). It is typically expressed through a balancing of two different ideas or phrases which are in opposition to one another. The two ideas must be clearly defined and expressed.


Antithesis is well suited to the creation of memorable phrases. Below are some examples:

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. John F. Kennedy, “Inaugural Address” (20 January 1961)

Tonight you voted for action, not politics as usual. You elected us to focus on your jobs , not ours. Barack Obama, “Second Presidential Election Victory Speech” (6 November 2012)

The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones; William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar, Act 3 Scene 2”

WeWriteSpeeches Antithesis explainer card

We must all learn to live together as brothers — or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.Martin Luther King, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” Commencement Address for Oberlin College (June 1965)

Antithesis and Parallelism

Antithesis works best when it is delivered using a parallel structure, though its not a necessary condition. Bobby Kennedy, like his older brother President John F. Kennedy, was fond of using antithesis with parallelism. He regularly paraphrased a George Bernard Shaw quote as he campaigned for the 1968 Democratic Party Nomination for President, and as he did so, he improved it. Here is one such instance:

I don't think we have to accept the situation as we have it at the moment. I think that we can do better, and I think the American people think that we can do better. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "Some people see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?" Robert Kennedy, “Recapturing American's Moral Vision” (18 March 1968)

Kennedy's version of the line is much more memorable than the original GBS version, because as well as using antithesis, it also has a parallel structure. The original goes as follows:

I hear you say "Why?" Always "Why?" You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?" George Bernard Shaw, “Back to Methuselah - Pt. 1: In the Beginning, Act I” (1921)

Antithesis and Juxtaposition

In antithesis, two things are placed in opposition to one another (the word antithesis comes from the Greek word antithenai, which means "to oppose"). It is a form of juxtaposition.

Juxtaposition itself is a broader concept and involves placing two ideas or concepts side by side for the purpose of comparison or contrast. They don't have to be opposites.

The following quote contains an example of juxtaposition and two examples of antithesis, all of which are arranged in a parallel structure (hover over the highlights for more details):

You have many, many important choices ahead of you:

  • Where to live?
  • Which jobs to take?
  • Whether to get married — and to whom?
  • Whether to have children — and how many?

But none of those choices will have as much bearing on your decency as a human being and on your happiness — your fundamental, enduring happiness — as a choice that you will make monthly, daily, even hourly.
And that’s whether you’re going to be
somebody who counts her blessings . . . or somebody who tallies her slights. 'Blessings' is not exactly the opposite of 'slights' so this must be considered as juxtaposition rather than antithesis. Learn more.

Do you take humble stock of the good luck in your life? Or do you take angry inventory of the bad? 'Good' and 'bad' are direct opposites so this is an example of antithesis.

Do you savor your strengths — or stew about your weaknesses? 'Strengths' and 'weaknesses' are opposites so this is an example of antithesis.
Frank Bruni, "Commencement Address, University of North Carolina" (8 May 2022)

Further reading

  • Silva Rhetoricæ: The Forest of Rhetoric Visit
  • Lorenz, Ben. "Antithesis." LitCharts Visit
  • Nordquist, Richard: Antithesis (Grammar and Rhetoric), ThoughtCo Visit
  • Manner of Speaking: Antithesis Visit
  • American Rhetoric: Antithesis Visit