How to Distinguish Contronyms

For those who follow our updates on grammar topics becoming an English pro is just a matter of time. We have already advised you on such tricky issues as relative clauses, converting sentences into indirect speech, the use of quantifiers and many more. Today we will focus on lexical peculiarities of the words known as contronyms.

Historical reference

Contronyms are lexical units characterized by the ability to convey two opposite or contradictory meanings. Therefore, you can distinguish them only taking into account the context. Contronyms have formed in the English language over time, assuming new meanings with the course of national history. These terms are also called Janus words, referring to the ancient Italian god named Janus who had two faces: on the front and on the back of his head.

Today the connections between opposite senses of contronyms are very vague, and often it is impossible to trace them down. It leaves English loves with only one option: to learn such words by heart. Moreover, you should use them very carefully in order not to confuse your readers. We will provide you with a list of 30 common English contronyms with examples how to employ them in sentences for you to expand your knowledge in the language.

List of contronyms

  • To bolt = to secure: Please bolt the door before going to bed.
  • To bolt = to run away: Jack was afraid that the police would come soon, so he bolted.
  • To cleave = to split: Our society cleaves into two major communities.
  • To cleave = to adhere: This surface does not cleave to the skin.
  • A dike = a wall: We have built a dike to prevent flooding from the ocean.
  • A dike = a ditch: My wheels got trapped in a dike.
  • To draw = to pull shut: Draw the curtains to make the room darker.
  • To draw = to pull open: Draw the curtains to make the room lighter.
  • To dust = to add tiny particles: Will you dust the cake with ground almond?
  • To dust = to remove tiny particles, including dust itself: You should dust your room once a week.
  • To enjoin = to prescribe: The doctor enjoined a vegetable diet to his patient.
  • To enjoin = to prohibit: Her conscience enjoined her from lying to her spouse.
  • Fast = quick: This man is cycling rather fast.
  • Fast = unmoving: You should ensure that the rope holds fast.
  • Finished = completed: Christie’s second novel is almost finished.
  • Finished = no longer happening: The spring football season has finished.
  • Hysterical = frightened: I got hysterical when I heard someone’s footsteps downstairs.
  • Hysterical = funny: This new Irish movie is simply hysterical! I could not help laughing.
  • To lease = to offer property for rent: I lease my apartment in Chicago to a married couple.
  • To lease = to hold property for rent: We lease a marvelous apartment in Chicago.
  • Left = remaining: Only 4 oranges are left in the fridge.
  • Left = departed from: Yesterday Michael left England for good.
  • Literally = actually: Do not take his words literally; he was drunk yesterday.
  • Literally = virtually: I have read literally thousands of books on the topic of pneumonia.
  • Nervy = nervous: I am growing nervy because Steve seems to be late.
  • Nervy = bold: Being a nervy girl, she spoke out loud first.
  • Mean = shabby: I found myself a mean district, surrounded by scarred unfamiliar faces.
  • Mean = excellent: They have mean food and service in that new restaurant.
  • Moot = debatable: We shall discuss this moot issue separately.
  • Moot = not worth debating: Let’s forget the issue, it has become moot.
  • Off = off: Turn the kitchen lights off.
  • Off = on: The fire alarm went off.
  • To overlook = to supervise: A nanny will overlook the children in the evening.
  • To overlook = to neglect: The nanny overlooked our children, and they got in trouble.
  • Oversight = control: The national museum has the oversight of that exhibitions.
  • Oversight = failure to notice: A wrong item was shipped to you due to an oversight.
  • Presently = now: Who is presently in charge of the chorus?
  • Presently = soon: You will meet my granddaughter presently.
  • Quite = rather: Your first essay was quite interesting.
  • Quite = completely: I quite forgot about your concert, I am so sorry.
  • To rent = to sell use: I have been planning to rent my flat since last August.
  • To rent = to buy use: I am renting a brilliant flat overlooking the city center.
  • To sanction = to approve: The authorities sanctioned new administrative fines.
  • To sanction = to impose a penalty: The authorities sanctioned a group of teenagers for inappropriate conduct.
  • To screen = to present: A new Russian movie will be screened in two weeks.
  • To screen = to conceal: She did her best to screen her face from sunbeams.
  • To seed = to sow seeds: My grandparents seeded their kitchen garden with pumpkin.
  • To seed = to remove seeds: To make a pumpkin pie, first of all you should seed a pumpkin.
  • To skin = to cover: Peter skinned the framework of his boat.
  • To skin = to remove: Put a tomato in hot water for several seconds to easily skin it.
  • To temper = to soften: Tempering your enthusiasm will help you analyze the situation.
  • To temper = to strengthen: In this workshop workers temper steel using cutting-edge technologies.
  • Transparent = invisible: This blouse is almost totally transparent; I can see your body through it.
  • Transparent = obvious: I took notice of transparent artifice in his voice.
  • Variety = a type: I love this particular apple variety.
  • Variety = many types: Sam’s garden contains a variety of apples.
  • To weather = to withstand: Lucy will weather this pain.
  • To weather = to wear away: The front door needs refurbishment because the paint has weathered badly.
  • With = referring to relations: The country traded with the Romans.
  • With = against: The country was prepared for the fight with the Romans.

Advice from Royal Editing

This post was inspired by your papers, in which we came across problems with contronyms. Although knowing them you become a versatile person, our writing editors would recommend you to avoid such words in your works if this is possible. The thinking behind is that they present difficulties for understanding and can cause major discrepancies, while you should do your best to produce an unambiguous piece of writing. However, if you cannot think of any synonym to replace a contronym, follow next rules:

  • introduce specifying words and phrases to stress the correct meaning of a contronym;
  • give explanations in parentheses;
  • start a new sentence, pointing out what you mean.

To sum it up, we remind you that contronyms are words with contradictory meanings. They are not numerous in the English language, but you should be careful in using them. Make sure you avoid ambiguity in your works, which can be caused by contronyms. And of course, the best policy will be to learn them to know your enemy better. We hope these tips will help you in your future academic activities.