How to teach opposites

Summary: Tips on teaching adjective opposites, verbs with opposite meanings, etc.

Although it can sometimes be difficult to say with certainty that a particular pair of words are really opposites, I think most teachers would agree that using the word “opposites” or “antonyms” to describe pairs like “dark”/ “fair” and “right”/ “wrong” helps makes language both memorable and easy to explain. Explaining language this way also avoids the need for translation and often makes the meaning clearer than a translation would. This article gives some particularly effective ways to present and use such language, and includes some very extensive lists of opposites that you can choose from when planning your classes. We also have an article on Classroom Activities for Teaching Opposites with ideas to use in the practice and production stages of your lesson.

Opposites are most often used to teach adjectives. Types of adjectives which have lots of opposites include:

  • Adjectives for describing people (appearance, character, feelings, etc)
  • Adjectives for describing objects (age, price, desirability, colour, size, dimensions, measurements, good points and bad points, etc)
  • Adjectives for describing places (size, location, good and bad points, etc)
  • Adjectives for describing experiences (holidays, meals in a restaurant, festivals and celebrations, etc)


The idea of teaching opposites can also be stretched beyond simple adjective opposite pairs like “big” and “little”. Within adjectives, extensions of the use of opposites include:

A lesson with comparative adjectives with opposites meanings like “more expensive” and “cheaper” can be a great way of presenting and/ or practising “-er” and “more…”.

Teaching that the opposite of “massive” is “tiny” but the opposite of “large/ big” is “small/ little” can be a good introduction to gradable and extreme adjectives.

A lesson on negative prefixes in opposites like “unpunctual” and “imprecise” can be a good start to the more general topic of affixes with particular meanings, some of which, like “pre-”/ “post-” and “macro-”/ “micro-”, also have pairs with opposite meanings.

You can use opposites as a way into positive and negative connotations if you look at different opposites of words, such as “funny/ amusing/ humorous” and “silly/ idiotic” being opposites of “serious” with positive and negative connotations.

You can also go beyond adjectives. Other kinds of opposites that you might want to introduce in class include:

  • Verbs like “close”/ “open” and “take”/ “bring”
  • Phrasal verbs like “bring forward” and “put off”/ “put back”
  • Positions and directions like “up”/ “down”, “on”/ “under”, “in”/ “out” and “in front”/ “behind”
  • Times such as “winter”/ “summer”, “before”/ “after” and “in”/ “ago”
  • Other prepositions like “with” and “without”
  • Nouns like “poverty” and “wealth” and relationship words
  • Positive and negative forms such as “yes”/ “no”, “can”/ “can’t” and “some”/ “not any”
  • Functional language like “I’m glad to hear that”/ “I’m sorry to hear that” and “Hello”/ “Goodbye”

You could also say that words used to talk about different genders like “her”/ “his” and “bride”/ “groom” are kinds of opposites.


Presenting opposites

One of the nicest things about teaching opposites is that there are symbols which are perfect to show synonyms and antonyms. Students might already know the symbols from school, and if not they are easy to introduce and explain, and incredibly useful in every class from then on. An equals mark (“=”) between two words or expressions obviously means they have the same meaning, and a two-ended arrow (like “ßà”) between two words or expressions means that they have opposite meanings. On my initial TEFL course I was taught to use an equals mark with a vertical line through it to show opposites instead, but this crossed out equals mark is much more useful with its original mathematical meaning of “not equal”, for example to show that “enormous” is not quite the same as “big”. I therefore strongly suggest sticking to the two ended arrow to show two things with opposite meanings.

If students already know the two-ended arrow symbol, then you can easily explain that in English we call that relationship “opposites” and/ or “antonyms”, and that is basically your grammar presentation done! You can also illustrate the meaning of the words “opposite”/ “antonym” with simple example words and/ or drawings of “tall”/ “short”, “fat”/ “thin”, etc on either end of that arrow.

Perhaps the most common way of presenting opposites in context is in a dialogue that has two people with very different views on something such as something they want to buy together, the best person for a job, or a holiday, e.g. “I thought it was lovely” “Lovely? Are you kidding? I thought it was really horrible”. Similar dialogues include someone criticising some else for doing everything the opposite of how they were told, two people remembering something like a school trip when they were young differently from each other, and two people contrasting their experiences.

If you find or make such a dialogue, it is simplest to start with some comprehension questions, for example on what topic the two people are talking about and who feels more positive or negative about that thing. Alternatively, you can cut up the dialogue and ask students to put it back into order (= a jigsaw text). After the initial comprehension check, students can find and match up the words with opposite meanings in the text, and then perhaps label them as positive and negative if you have chosen ones with clear connotations.

These kinds of dialogues are fun and students usually also enjoy writing or taking part in similar dialogues in the practice stage, but to present all the opposites that you need for the class tends to make such dialogues rather long and unrealistic. Luckily there are plenty of other ways of giving enough context so that students can match up pairs of words even if they didn’t know them (well) before the lesson.

The easiest matching task is for students to match up pairs of words which have accompanying pictures, e.g. matching up a card with a picture of an igloo and the word “cold” and a picture of a desert and the written word “hot”. This is a bit too easy for most classes and some students may avoid reading the words at all. However, you can do something similar with sentences to give context instead of pictures, e.g. sentences for students to match like “The South Pole is cold” and “The Sahara Desert is hot”. They can then underline and match the actual opposite words.

Another kind of context is providing some words that they already know. For example, if they already know some synonyms and antonyms of words that you want to present, you can just get them to label the synonyms and antonyms on each line of the worksheet, starting with the one they know each time and then guessing that the one they didn’t know must be the other kind of word. For example, if they already know that “huge” is a “synonym” of “gigantic”, they should easily be able to label “gigantic/ huge/ tiny” with the words “synonym/ synonym/ antonym” or “the same/ the same/ opposite”. You can then test their memory with a more challenging task where they match up the same antonyms and synonyms.

Quite a few of the practice activities described in the accompanying article Classroom Activities for Teaching Opposites can also work as preparation for a presentation stage. For example, action songs and picture books work well even ifthe learners know few of the words before starting the activity. 

Alternatively, you could give students opposites pairs that are already matched up to use during a speaking activity, then test them on their memory of that language afterwards (an approach that I often use and call Use Recall Analyse). For example, you could give them a worksheet with pairs of words like “nice ßà horrible” to use during a personalised discussion activity where they find out views that they share. When they finish, ask them to remember and match up the same words without looking back at that worksheet.


The big list of opposites

Note that words divided by a slash (/) often don’t have exactly the same meaning, they are just different opposites of the words on the other side of the dash. Many words below are also possible with different parts of speech, e.g. “poverty/ wealthy” as well as “poor/ wealthy”.

Describing people opposites list

Appearance opposites list

a big nose – a little nose

a curved nose/ a hooked nose – a straight nose

a flat stomach – a bulging stomach/ a beer belly

a fringe – a parting

a rough chin – a smooth chin

a round chin – a square chin

a smooth face/ a wrinkle-free face – a lined face/ a wrinkly face

bald/ hairless – hairy

bearded/ hairy – clean shaven

beautiful/ good looking/ gorgeous/ handsome/ pretty/ stunning – ugly/ hideous

big eyes/ round eyes – narrow eyes

big/ large…– little/ small…

broad shoulders – narrow shoulders

bulging… – flat…

bushy eyebrows/ thick eyebrows – thin eyebrows

busty/ buxom – flat-chested

chubby/ fat/ obese/ overweight – bony/ skinny/ slim/ thin

curly hair – straight hair

dark – fair/ pale

dark skin – light skin/ pale skin

feminine – macho

lanky/ long-limbed – stocky/ short-limbed

light blue eyes – dark brown eyes

long hair – short hair/ skinhead

long legs – short legs

long limbed – short limbed

long…– short…

old – young

plucked eyebrows – natural eyebrows

scruffy – smart

short – tall

thick…– thin…


List of personality opposites

active/ dynamic/ pushy – passive

adaptable – unadaptable

adult/ grown up/ mature – babyish/ immature/ juvenile

adventurous/ radical – conservative/ traditional/ unadventurous

affectionate/ warm – cold/ cold blooded/ unaffectionate

ambitious/ driven – unambitious

approachable – aloof/ unapproachable

arrogant/ big-headed/ boastful/ immodest/ proud – humble/ modest

badly behaved/ naughty – well behaved

bold/ brave/ courageous – cautious/ cowardly/ timid

boring/ dull/ uninteresting – fascinating/ interesting

brainy/ clever/ intelligent/ smart – dumb/ stupid/ thick

broadminded/ open-minded – narrow-minded

careful – careless/ clumsy

caring/ kind – cruel/ heartless/ uncaring/ unkind

cautious – impetuous/ impulsive

chaotic/ disorganised – organised

cheeky/ disrespectful – respectful

cheerful – grumpy

clumsy – graceful

comfortable in your skin/ unselfconscious – neurotic/ self-conscious

competent – incompetent

considerate – inconsiderate

consistent – inconsistent

constant – changeable

conventional/ normal – eccentric/ odd/ strange/ unconventional/ weird

crazy/ insane/ mad – sane

creative – uncreative

cynical/ paranoid/ suspicious – gullible/ trusting

dependent – independent/ self-reliant

diligent – slack

diplomatic/ tactful – straightforward/ tactless/ undiplomatic 

discreet/ secretive – frank/ open

downbeat – upbeat

driven/ motivated – unmotivated

easy-going/ indulgent/ lenient/ relaxed – strict

efficient – inefficient

egotistical/ selfish/ self-centred – generous/ selfless

energetic/ hard working/ industrious – lazy/ slothful

extraverted/ outgoing – introverted/ shy

feeble/ weak – powerful/ strong

feminine/ girly – macho/ manly/ masculine

flexible – inflexible/ rigid

foolish/ silly – sensible/ serious/ wise

generous – mean/ stingy

gentle – rough/ violent

helpful – unhelpful

honest – dishonest

ignorant – knowledgeable

laidback/ relaxed – stressed/ uptight

logical/ systematic – illogical/ instinctive/ unsystematic

loud/ noisy/ talkative – quiet/ silent/ softly spoken

loyal – disloyal

messy/ untidy – neat/ tidy

moderate – extreme/ extremist

negative – positive

obedient – disobedient/ rebellious

optimistic – pessimistic

patient – impatient

polite – impolite/ rude

practical – impractical

prudent – imprudent

punctual – unpunctual

reliable – unreliable

sensitive/ thin-skinned – insensitive/ thick-skinned

strong-willed – weak-willed

sympathetic – unsympathetic

trustworthy – untrustworthy


List of feelings opposites

afraid/ scared – unafraid

amused – unamused

angry/ upset – calm

ashamed/ embarrassed – proud/ unashamed/ unembarrassed

attracted – repelled

boiling/ roasting – freezing/ frozen

bored/ uninterested – entertained/ excited/ interested

calm/ relaxed/ soothed – flustered/ stressed/ worried

certain/ sure – uncertain/ unsure

cold – hot

comforted – disturbed/ perturbed/ upset

convinced – unconvinced

cool – warm

disappointed/ underwhelmed/ unimpressed – impressed

distracted – focused

drunk/ tipsy/ wasted – sober

empowered – disempowered

encouraged/ heartened – discouraged/ disheartened

energetic/ energised/ invigorated/ refreshed – sleepy/ tired

fit – unfit

flattered – insulted/ wounded

fulfilled – unfulfilled

full – hungry

guilty – innocent

happy – sad/ unhappy

ill/ sick/ unhealthy – healthy/ well

inspired – uninspired

miserable – overjoyed

motivated – demotivated/ unmotivated

pleased – displeased

safe – unsafe

satisfied – dissatisfied

secure – insecure/ neurotic

shocked/ surprised – unsurprised

starving – stuffed

willing – reluctant/ unwilling


Other opposites for describing people

absent – present

alive – dead

amateur – professional

aristocratic/ upper class – lower class/ working class

asleep – awake

capable – incapable

divided – united

divorced/ single – married

for – against

junior – senior

lucky – unlucky

male – female

qualified – unqualified


Adjectives for describing objects opposites

abundant/ common – scarce/ rare

ancient/ antique – brand new/ cutting edge/ the latest

artificial/ man-made – natural

attractive/ gorgeous/ stunning – ugly/ hideous/ unattractive

automatic – manual

back to front/ inside out/ the wrong way round – the right way round

beautiful/ gorgeous/ stunning – hideous

bendy/ flexible – stiff

bent – straight

big/ bulky/ large – compact/ little/ small

bitter/ savoury/ sour – sweet

black – white

bland – pungent/ spicy

boiling – freezing

boundless/ limitless – limited

breakable/ fragile – hard-wearing/ hardy/ sturdy

bright/ light – dark/ dim

broad/ wide – narrow

broken/ out of order – fixed/ mended/ repaired/ working

bumpy/ dented/ rough/ bobbly – flat/ smooth

cheap/ reasonable – expensive/ pricey

clean/ spotless – dirty/ dusty/ filthy/ muddy

closed/ shut – open

cold – hot

common/ popular – rare/ exclusive

complex/ complicated/ difficult/ hard – easy/ simple/ user friendly

conducting – insulating

cool – warm

crooked – straight

crucial/ essential/ vital – pointless

custom-made/ tailor-made – off-the-shelf/ standard

deep – shallow

deflated/ flat/ burst – inflated

different – alike/ equal/ similar/ the same

disposable – reusable

domestic/ tame – wild

dry – moist/ wet

efficient – inefficient

empty – full

enormous/ huge/ massive – tiny/ minuscule/ microscopic

exotic – ordinary

fast/ quick/ rapid – slow

firm/ hard/ solid – soft/ spongy/ squashy

flat/ horizontal – pointing up/ vertical

fresh – rotten/ stale

good value for money/ reasonable – exorbitant

hard – soft

harmful – harmless

harsh – mild

heat sensitive – heat resistant/ heatproof

heavy – light/ feather-light

high-tech – low-tech

horizontal/ lying down/ lying flat – vertical/ sticking up

important – trivial/ unimportant

indoor – outdoor

inferior – superior

inner – outer

lawful/ legal – illegal/ unlawful

loose/ slack – tight/ skin-tight

loud/ noisy/ ear splitting – quiet/ (nearly) silent

mobile/ portable – fixed/ immobile

moving/ portable – fixed/ stable/ steady/ stationary

neat/ tidy – messy/ untidy

new – old

opaque – see through/ transparent

plentiful – rare/ scarce

pointed/ pointy/ sharp – rounded/ blunt

pure – contaminated/ impure

reliable – unreliable

slippery – sticky

tender – tough

thick – thin

upside down – the right way up

useful – useless

visible – invisible

well designed – badly designed


Adjectives for describing places opposites

authentic – fake

central – isolated/ suburban

close/ near – distant/ far

cloudy/ rainy – clear/ sunny

cramped/ crowded – deserted/ empty

dark – light

desert – swamp/ wetlands

developed – undeveloped

downmarket/ poor – rich/ upmarket

dry – humid

exposed – covered/ sheltered

narrow – broad/ wide

occupied – vacant

rural – urban


Other adjective opposites

abstract – concrete

accidental – deliberate/ on purpose/ intentional

accurate – inaccurate

advanced – beginner/ elementary

apart – together

cheerful/ life affirming – depressing/ gloomy

compulsory – voluntary

correct/ right – incorrect/ wrong

definite – indefinite

domestic – international

even – odd

extreme – moderate

false – true

final/ last – first/ initial

fortunate – unfortunate

free – captive/ bound

frequent – rare

general – specific

humane – inhumane

imaginary – actual/ real

just – unjust

known – unknown

minor – major

native – foreign

out of date – up to date

partial – total

permanent – temporary

profitable – unprofitable

regular – irregular

satisfactory - unsatisfactory singular – plural

tame – wild

true – false/ lie


List of verb opposites

accelerate/ speed up – brake/ slow down

accept/ choose/ select – decline/ reject/ refuse/ turn down

add – remove/ subtract/ take away

admit – deny

adore/ love – despise/ detest/ hate/ loathe

allow/ let – ban/ forbid/ prevent

appear – disappear/ vanish

apply/ put on – remove/ strip off/ take off

approach – keep back/ keep away/ step back

approve – disapprove

arrange/ classify/ organise/ put into order/ sort/ sort out – mess up/ mix up

arrest – release

arrive – depart/ leave

ascend/ go up/ climb – descend/ drop/ fall/ go down

ask – answer

assemble/ put together – dismantle/ disassemble/ take apart

attach/ connect – detach/ disconnect/ take off

attack – defend/ protect

be born/ live – die

beckon – wave someone away

begin/ start/ undertake – bring to a close/ complete/ end/ finish

bend/ flex – flatten/ straighten

blame/ criticise – praise

bless – curse

block – unblock

blow – suck

blow up/ inflate – deflate/ let down

borrow – lend

break/ damage – fix/ mend/ repair

breathe in/ inhale – breathe out/ exhale

brighten – fade

bring – take

bring together/ gather/ collate/ collect – separate/ spread (out)

broadcast/ transmit – pick up/ receive

broaden/ widen – narrow

build/ construct – demolish/ destroy/ deconstruct

bury – dig up/ unearth

buy/ purchase – sell

catch – throw

change/ vary – maintain/ remain/ stay

close/ shut – open

coat/ cover/ wrap – strip/ uncover

collate/ collect/ combine/ put together – distribute/ disseminate

come out/ exit – enter/ go in

compliment/ flatter – insult

compress/ crush/ squeeze/ squash – pull/ stretch

conceal/ hide – reveal

condense – evaporate

contract/ shrink – expand/ grow

cool (down) – heat (up)

cough up/ spit out/ vomit – swallow

crash/ dive/ plummet/ plunge – rocket/ skyrocket/ soar/ take off

create/ make/ produce – destroy/ disassemble/ dismantle

cry – laugh

cut/ decrease/ lower/ reduce/ slash – boost/ increase/ raise

cut – paste

decrease/ drop/ fall – increase/ go up/ rise

discourage – encourage

dislike – like

dispose of/ throw away – keep/ store

divide/ share/ split – keep together/ put together

divorce – marry

do up/ fasten – undo/ unfasten

dread – look forward to

drop/ fall – rise

drop/ put down – lift/ pick up

dry – humidify/ moisten

emigrate – immigrate

empty – fill

enter/ go in – come out/ leave

erect – bring down/ pull down/ take down

exaggerate – underplay

exclude – include

export – import

extinguish/ put out – ignite/ light/ set fire to

fail – pass/ succeed

fall short – reach

fasten – unfasten

find/ locate/ reveal/ show – hide/ lose

float – sink

fold – unfold

follow – lead

forget – recall/ remember

freeze – melt

frown/ grimace – grin/ smile

get/ receive – give

give up – persevere

glance – stare

go to bed – get up

go to sleep – wake up

grant – refuse

grow – shrink

guffaw/ laugh out loud – snigger

harden – soften

harvest/ reap – plant/ sow  

help – hinder

hit – miss

hold (in place) – let go/ release

ignore – notice/ pay attention (to)

improve – worsen

insert/ slot into/ plug in – pull out/ unplug

kneel/ lie down/ sit – stand up

knock back (in one) – sip

land – take off

learn – teach

lengthen – shorten

lie – tell the truth

lift/ raise – lower

lock – unlock

loosen – tighten

lose – win

misunderstand – understand

move – remain

nibble – wolf down

nod (your head) – shake your head

pack – unpack

press/ squeeze/ squash – stretch

progress – regress

pull – push/ press

put on/ wear – take off

relax – tense up

release – trap

save – spend/ waste

shout/ yell – whisper

slide/ slip – stick

slump/ stoop – stand up straight/ stand to attention

strengthen – weaken

tie – untie

unzip – zip

wane – wax

wind – unwind


List of multi-word verb opposites (phrasal verb opposites etc)

break in – break out

break up/ split up – get together

blow up – let down

bring forward – put back/ put off

bring up/ chuck up/ puke up – keep down

carry on/ keep on/ stick on – give in/ give up

catch up/ get ahead – drop back/ drop behind/ fall back/ fall behind

check in – check out

cheer up – get down

chill out – stress out

come down with – get over

come forward/ put yourself forward – hold back

cool down – warm up

dress down – dress up

drop someone off – pick someone off

eat in – take away/ take out

go out – stay in

hand out – take in

hang up – pick up

keep away/ keep out – let in

leave out/ take out – put in

look down on – look up to

mess around/ play around – settle down

mess up – sort out/ tidy up

pick up – put down

put away – take out

put on – take off

put up – take down

rub out – write down

run after/ run towards – run away

speed up – slow down

switch on/ turn on – switch off/ turn off


List of positions and directions opposites

above – below

away from – towards

backwards – forwards

by the sea/ on the coast – inland

city centre/ downtown/ town centre – outskirts/ suburbs

clockwise – anticlockwise/ counter-clockwise

close to/ near (to) – distant from/ far from

down – up

downstairs – upstairs

East – West

from – to

here – there

in – out

in front of – behind

indoors – outdoors

inside – outside

into – out of

island – mainland

left – right

North – South

Northeast – Southwest

Northwest – Southeast

off of – onto

on – under

on the right – on the left


List of nouns with opposite meanings

List of relationship opposites

ally/ friend/ supporter – enemy/ opponent

ancestor – descendant

big brother/ elder brother – little brother/ younger brother

boss – subordinate

brother – sister

child – parent

close friend – acquaintance/ stranger

coach/ instructor/ teacher – pupil/ student

customer – supplier

doctor/ nurse – patient

employee – employer

follower – leader

grandchild – grandparent

great-grandchild – great-grandparent

guest – host/ hostess

landlord/ landlady – tenant

master – servant

monarch – subject


Other nouns for describing people opposites

body – mind

boy – girl

comfort – discomfort

courage – cowardice

coward – hero

despair – hope

emigrant – immigrant

folly/ stupidity – wisdom

fortune – misfortune

insider – outsider

joy – sorrow

miser – spendthrift

native – foreigner


Nouns for describing places opposites

attic/ loft – basement/ cellar

entrance – exit

exterior – interior

floor – ceiling/ roof

foothills/ valley – peak

ground floor – top floor/ roof


Other noun opposites

advantage – disadvantage

antonym/ opposite – synonym

background – foreground

benefits – drawbacks

birth – death

blame/ criticism – praise

blessing – curse

boom – bust

bottom – top

comedy – tragedy

consonant – vowel

dawn – dusk

defeat – victory

demand – supply

democracy – dictatorship

diphthong – monophthong

failure – success

falsehood/ lie/ untruth – truth

front – back/ rear

gas/ liquid – solid

gloss – matt

hate – love

heaven – hell

help – hindrance

justice – injustice

knowledge – ignorance

loss – win

minimum – maximum

monarchy – republic

nadir – zenith

peace – war

poetry – prose

poverty – riches/ wealth

pros – cons

question – answer

sunrise – sunset

vice – virtue


List of adverbs with opposite meanings

about/ approximately – exactly/ precisely

fortunately – unfortunately

often – rarely

always – never

see adjectives for more


List of time expression opposites

…ago – in…

after/ later – before/ earlier

already – not yet

distant future – near future

early – late

from… – until…

in the morning – in the evening/ at night

last…– next…

summer – winter

the day after tomorrow – the day before yesterday

tomorrow – yesterday

midday/ noon – midnight

past – future

recent past – distant past


Other preposition opposites

against – for

from – to

with – without


Positive and negative forms opposites

all – none

always – never

can – can’t

do – don’t

everyone/ everybody – no one/ nobody

everything – nothing

everywhere – nowhere

must – mustn’t

some – not any

will – won’t

would – wouldn’t

yes – no


Functional language opposites

I’m glad to hear that – I’m sorry to hear that

bye/ goodbye – hello

good morning – good night

see you later – see you sometime

you are allowed to…/ you can…–  you aren’t allowed to…/ you can’t…/ you mustn’t…

I’d love to – I would have loved to, but…

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Written by Alex Case for

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