A drawing portrait of author Charles Dickens. He is a man in late middle age with a full beard and moustache.

Source: Charles Dickens - Project Gutenberg eText 13103, Elliott & Fry, Wikimedia

Contrasting two opposing ideas or words in a parallel structure is called antithesis. A great and famous example of antithesis is the opening sentence from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Why might Dickens begin the novel this way? Well, it is attention-getting and memorable. One of the reasons we remember it so readily is because, yes, you're right, it's parallel. Parallelism or repetition helps us to remember things we've read and heard. In fact, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” is one of the most quoted lines in the English language. It has appeared in movies, television shows, articles, and other novels. Have you noticed yet that capturing and maintaining the audience’s attention is an important function of syntax?

By using antithesis, a writer can explain what is by explaining what is not. For example, Patrick Henry’s famous line “Give me liberty or give me death!” is from a speech he delivered in which he tried to convince the state of Virginia to send troops to fight the British during the American Revolution. He defined the word “liberty” by contrasting it with the word “death.” To Henry, dying was preferable to living under the tyranny of British rule.

In the activity below, click on the sentence in each pair that uses at least one example of antithesis.

icon for interactive exercise
A photograph of President John F. Kennedy seated at his desk in the oval office

Source: Source: Scan10001, tellmewhat2, Flickr

A photograph of New York Governor Mario Cuomo standing a t a podium and speaking into a microphone

Source: GovernorMarioCuomo, David Berkowitz, Wikimedia

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.
—John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address

The Republicans believe that the wagon train will not make it to the frontier unless some of the old, some of the young, some of the weak are left behind by the side of trail.
—Mario Cuomo, 1984 Democratic Convention Address
Try again.

A photograph of President Richard M. Nixon

Source: Neil Armstrong pose, Wikimedia

A photograph of Nebraska politician and populist William Jennings Bryan

Source: FDR, London, 19 November 2011, ed_needs_a_bicycle, Flickr

So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address
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That's one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind.
—Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 Moon Landing Speech

A photograph of President Richard M. Nixon

Source: Richard Nixon, Wikimedia

A photograph of Nebraska politician and populist William Jennings Bryan

Bryan 1896 left, Wikimedia

A Republic whose history, like the path of the just, is as the shining light that shineth more and more unto the perfect day.
—William Jennings Bryan, Address at 1900 Democratic National Convention
Try again.

We find ourselves rich in goods but ragged in spirit, reaching with magnificent precision for the moon but falling into raucous discord on earth.
—Richard M. Nixon, Inaugural Address

A photograph of a statue of Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa and civil rights activist

Source: Mandela, dan.holton, Flickr

Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divides [sic]* us has come.
—Nelson Mandela, Presidential Inaugural Address
Try again.

* [sic] means “this is how it really appeared in the original.” We do this to point out an error in grammar or punctuation that was made by the writer—not the people who subsequently copy the material. In this case there is an agreement problem between “chasms” and “divides.“

A photograph of President George W. Bush

Source: GeorgeWBush, Eric Draper, Wikimedia

A painting of author Samuel Johnson reading a newspaper or pamphlet

Source: Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds, Joshua Reynolds, Wikimedia

And I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.
—George W. Bush, 2000 Inaugural Address
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Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.
—Samuel Johnson, The History of Rasselas