To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty:
"wit n the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse; an imaginatively perceptive and articulate individual..."
At $2 trillion, the creative economy -- design, discovery, and invention -- is approaching 50% of the US economy. The creative class, the workers in the creative economy, comprise about 30% of the US workforce. Wit is not a luxury..

Opposites Attract Attention

Once when I was a kid, I got into an argument with Billy. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” said Billy. “Ignorance of the law is the only excuse,” I said. Billy froze. Then Billy mut­tered, “Well, it’s still no excuse.” I realized that given two things that sounded good, Billy couldn’t tell the difference between them, and he had no other way to judge true and false. That was the first time I remember using the technique that I am going to tell you about this month

Some words are remembered; some are forgotten. Some words hold peoples’ attention; some words are background noise. Would you like your words to keep peoples’ attention? There is a common, easy way to do it. It is as easy as putting contrasting or opposite ideas close together. Since the time of the ancient Greeks it’s been called “antithesis.”

The three kinds of antithesis are single, serial, and double. Let’s take them one at a time.

For single antithesis, you place two contrasting words or phrases near each other. For example:

“easy come, easy go.”
“rags to riches”

There are a few tricks for constructing single antithesis:

  • Start with a “concept word”: a word that expresses the point of your statement.
  • Choose a word for an opposite or contrasting concept.
  • Put the original and the opposite in two phrases, or two halves of a sentence, or two successive sentences.
  • Balance the two parts, that is: make the two halves have the same syntactic structure and preferably many of the same words. Place the opposites in the same positions, both subjects, both direct objects, or whatever. Make the two halves have about the same number of syllables. To make it easier to do, draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, and try out versions of each part on its own side. Go back and forth.
  • To make antithesis more effective, keep the opposites close together and end on the positive.

By serial antithesis, I mean simply a series of single antitheses. For example, Winston Churchill said of the British government before WW II:

“Decided only to be undecided,
resolved to be irresolute,
adamant for drift,
solid for fluidity,
all-powerful to be impotent.”

Why didn’t Churchill just call the government “irresolute?” That would be quicker. Why use serial antithesis?

  1. Serial antithesis grabs the attention.
  2. In a speech, the time devoted to a topic is not a sign of how difficult it is to say, but of how important it is to hear. A reader who misses a point can always reread, but a listener cannot rehear—unless you say it again.

For double antithesis, you use more than one word in the first half and their opposites in the second half. Here’s how Abraham Lincoln used it in the Gettysburg Address:

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,
but it can never forget what they did here.

Churchill was great at it. In The Malakand Field Force, he wrote:

I pass with relief from the tossing sea of Cause and Theory
to the firm ground of Result and Fact.

Wow: tossing sea, firm ground; cause, result; theory, fact: triple antithesis, and one of them a metaphor.

Another time he said:

The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings;
the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.

Quadruple antithesis!

What do you use antithesis for? You can use antithesis to express the contradictions, the ironies in life.

We are caught in war, wanting peace.
We are torn by division, wanting unity.
-- Richard Nixon

You can use antithesis for persuasion and motivation by comparing

  • dangers and opportunities
  • what we fear and what we hope for
  • the unfortunate consequences of my opponent's proposals and the manifest benefits of mine
  • the dark chasm of our present struggle and the bright highlands of our future success.

You can make people pay attention to your words. You can phrase your ideas so that, instead of immediately forgetting your words, people will try to memorize them to repeat to others. Antithesis is one of the easiest and most powerful techniques for crafting memorable phrases. Try it for yourself.


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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1