The Encyclopedia of Mytholingual Creatures, Places, and Things—Part II—Jʚsɘph Cɑɱpbɛɬɭ SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 3 Contents Out-of-this-World Fieldwork Puzzle #1—Pecha Kucha

A Love/Hate Relationship: Pesky Antonyms

Jessie Sams
Stephen F. Austin State University

When students get to college, the majority of them have never thought about antonyms as being anything more than “opposites.” So big is the opposite of small, just like buyer is the opposite of seller. Then, all of a sudden, students are forced into a linguistics course with a professor who tells them that they have to learn to differentiate among different types of antonyms. Student’s minds are nearly exploding with information as they have to learn definitions of terms like ‘converse’ and ‘gradable’ and ‘complementary’ in the world of antonymsa world that until the semantics chapter of that linguistics course had been quite simple.

After spending a large portion of one class talking about the differences in types of antonyms and providing example after example of those different types, I put the following question on a semantics quiz:

What is the difference among the following types of antonyms: gradable, converse, and complementary? Provide examples of each in your answer.

When I wrote the question, I mistakenly thought it would be one of the easier questions. I thought that perhaps students would struggle with finding the right words to talk about the differences, but they wouldat the very leastbe able to provide examples. I found, though, that my optimism was not warranted, when I collected the tests and began grading them. After the first few, I went back to the textbook to make sure the text hadn’t sneaked in perfidious information to lead my students astray. In my version of the textbook, however, no new information had appeared overnight to warrant the majority of the answers I was getting on the quiz.

To refresh others’ memories and to pat myself on the back for teaching something to at least one of the 50 students who took the quiz, here is the “best” answerthe only answer in all 50 quizzes to receive full credit on the question:

Gradable antonyms lie on opposing ends of a spectrum that has many points lying in between (one way to think about it). “Beautiful” and “hideous” for example, can be “graded” by calling something “incredibly beautiful” or “bordering on hideous.” Converse antonyms are words that derive meaning from their opposite such that one can’t exist apart from the other like “grandparent” and “grandchild.” Complementary antonyms are non-gradable, such as “single” and “married.”

My heart beats a little faster every time I read that answer. Chances are, the student who wrote it is simply a good student who actually reads the textbook and would have gotten it correct even without my enlightening lecture on antonyms, but I still like to think that my guidance played a small part in the student’s ability to construct such a well-thought-out answer.

My heart then skips a few beats and eventually slows altogether as I read through the other answers I got on the quiz. Here are the answers from those students who gallantly attempted to answer the question (the following answers are “undoctored”; that is, they appear exactly as they appeared on the quiz):

It is at this point in grading that I begin to question whether I even showed up for class and lectured on the material. Or if I did show up, if I had consumed any adult beverages beforehand and presented all the wrong information. Or, perhaps the saddest realization of all, that it doesn’t matter what I say at the front of the classroom because students are too busy sleeping, daydreaming, or not-so-subtly texting under their desks to notice. [Insert pained sigh here.] Oh, the complexities of the once-so-overly-but-gloriously-simplified antonymsthey represent the good, bad, and ugly of the negative and positive forces of semantic relationships.

The Encyclopedia of Mytholingual Creatures, Places, and Things—Part II—Jʚsɘph Cɑɱpbɛɬɭ
Out-of-this-World Fieldwork Puzzle #1—Pecha Kucha
SpecGram Vol CLIX, No 3 Contents