The power of opposites in rhetoric


When Neil Armstrong climbed down a ladder from Apollo 11 in 1969 and set his foot down on the surface of the moon, he declared famously:  “That’s one small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind.” That statement became almost as iconic as the moon-landing itself, capturing as it did so poignantly how a relatively mundane action could be so vast and historic in its significance. And what made that sentence work so well? It was in its use of antithesis — the bold juxtaposition of contrasting concepts placed next to each other for dramatic or rhetorical effect and carefully balanced within the structure of the sentence.

Below are some common phrases that make good use of this rhetorical device, as well as some famous quotations from thinkers, writers and literary works that draw on this “oppositional” effect. Please add more examples of these expressions or quotations in the comments section below.


Jack of all trades, master of none

Penny wise, pound foolish

The longest way round is the shortest way home

One man’s meat is another man’s poison

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

Man works from sun to sun but a woman’s work is never done

Quotes from thinkers & writers:

“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

“It is better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees.” — Emiliano Zapata

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” — Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism

“Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing.” — Goethe

From literature:

“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” — from Milton’s Paradise Lost

“And let my liver rather heat with wine
Than my heart cool with mortifying groans.” — from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

“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.”
— the first lines of A tale of two cities by Charles Dickens


Thanks Lil.




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