Proofreading Tips: Contronyms

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Also known as auto-antonyms, these are potentially confusing words with meanings that seem to be their own opposites. I’ve also seen these described as Janus words, after the two faced Roman god of beginnings and endings.

If you keep an eye on the assortment of websites devoted to aspects of English grammar you may have come across lists of contronyms. These often have an American slant to the definitions, and sometimes beg the question – is that really an ‘opposite’?

To maximise these listicles, phrasal verbs are included as single words and dependent prepositions are ignored. For instance bound for / bound by, clip to / clip off and being left / having left – all arguable.

These are contronyms:

to cleave – split apart or join together (archaic and curious)
to dust – to add fine particles (dust a sponge cake) or  to remove fine particles (dust a shelf)
to screen – to protect or conceal or to show or broadcast
to strike – to hit or miss
to trim – to add (trim a hem) or or remove (trim a hedge)
to wear – endure or deteriorate
to weather – withstand (weather the storm) or wear away (weather the rock)

and how about:
fireman - the person extinguishing fire as a firefighter or stoking the fire on the footplate of a steam train.

Here are another couple of English language oddities:

flammable / inflammable – both can catch fire, but this looks like a word and its opposite. Here the ‘in’ isn’t a negative, it’s a prefix related to the construction of words like 'enflame'. Flammable is unambiguous and is the word I would choose.

peel / unpeel – synonyms which look like antonyms. Peel is older and well established and suits potatoes. Unpeel? It’s in use but seems unnecessary, though it specifically describes removing peel. Peel is the more versatile word for removing peel or skin or plastic or whatever.

Like to add any more English language anomalies?

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006 and helps organise venues for SCBWI North East. Details of her writing and illustrating can be found here. She proofreads study guides, house magazines and publicity material for national educational organisations, in addition to working on a variety of proofreads and copyedits for the growing self-published world. Her monthly column Proofreading Tips is intended to give you food for thought, remembering “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling or typographical error” (McKean’s Law, named after its inventor Erin McKean, editor of the Oxford American Dictionary).

Louisa Glancy is a features editor for Words & Pictures.
Twitter: @Louisa Glancy

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