Oh, contronyms—those difficult, vexing little words that can totally alter a sentence if used inappropriately. Many people aren’t aware that there are oodles of words out there that can have contradictory meanings, and if put in the wrong context, can leave the reader with their eyebrow arched right into their hairline. Let’s take a look at some of the terms that are often misused, in the hope that we can refrain from traumatizing our dedicated readers in the future.
1. Bolt (to fasten tightly, or to break free)
The door was bolted shut, but she broke through it and bolted to freedom.
2. Bound (tied up, and running free)
Edgar thought the stag was bound to the tree, but he realized his mistake when he watched it bound merrily into the forest.
3. Buckle (to connect, or to break or collapse)
Mona was sure to buckle her kids’ seatbelts every time they got in the car. She was sure that one of these days she’d buckle under the strain of parenting quintuplets on her own.
4. Dust (to cover with a fine sprinkling, or to remove that sprinkling)
The baker decided to dust the pastries with a bit of icing sugar. Never mind the mess; she could dust and sweep it away later.
5. Fast (firmly, and quickly)
Wulfgar realized that he was stuck fast in the quagmire; he’d have to move fast to free himself from it.
6. Fine (of high quality, or just barely tolerable)
You can cancel a date at a fine restaurant so you can watch the game with your friends, but you’ll upset your girlfriend if you do. She’ll tell you that it’s “fine”, but know that you’re up sh*t creek, bro. Seriously.
7. First degree (least severe, or most severe)
Xavier received first degree burns while committing first degree murder.
8. Fix (restore, or castrate)
Emma made sure that the door on Cujo’s crate was fixed: he might be angry when he came back from the vet’s after being fixed, and it would be best to keep him at a distance for a while.
9. Garnish (to remove, or to add to and decorate)
The CEO realized that he’d have to garnish his employee’s wages in order to pay for the garnish needed on his daughter’s wedding cake.
10. Give out (produce/donate, or stop working)
Marcus wanted to give out 3 tonnes of Halloween candy, but he figured his heart would give out after the first few hours of tossing sugary snacks at kids.
11. Help (to take, or to give aid to)
Help yourself to all the biscuits you can eat, though I’ll need your help washing dishes later.
12. Left (remained, or departed)
There were only a few biscuits left on the plate after the party, and Fred had left without helping with the dishes.
13. Off (activated, or deactivated)
The house alarm went off after dad accidentally shut the power off.
14. Out (in view of, or invisible)
We only noticed how many stars were out after we had turned the lights out.
15. Overlook (has a view of, or is ignored)
Frank Lloyd Wright’s house overlooks the mountains. How could anyone overlook the gorgeous trees growing on them?
16. Oversight (monitor, or fail to oversee)
The new supervisor was given oversight of the important fundraiser, which may not have been the wisest decision. The CEO had to reassure the mayor that his lack of invitation was an oversight, not an insult.
17. Quite (rather, or completely)
Mrs. Featherbottom was quite tired after judging the 53rd annual rose gardening competition, and decided to quit the following year: she’d had quite enough of flowers for one lifetime.
18. Screen (to present, or conceal)
Jeff wanted to screen his new film at the cosplayer convention, but knew he’d have to screen impressionable youngsters from seeing it.
19. Seed (to remove seeds, or to sow them)
Be sure to seed the tomatoes before you turn them into sauce, so we can use the pips to seed the garden next spring.
20. Skin (remove a layer from or add a layer to)
Daryl made sure to skin the dead snake his brother found so he could skin his iPhone in something cool.
21. Strike (to hit, or miss an attempt to hit)
Manfred tried to strike the ball with his bat, but deep down he knew he’d strike out yet again.
22. Stroke (a forceful strike, or a gentle caress)
At the stroke of midnight, I decided to stroke my cat’s back.
23. Trim (add to, or detract from)
We can trim the Christmas tree, and trim the crust off bread at breakfast. Later, we’ll trim your hair before dinner, and then have a feast with all the trimmings.
24. Variety (singular, or generalization)
There was a variety of different apples on the table, but Klaus just ate the Mackintosh ones, as that’s the only variety that he likes.
25. Weather (withstand, or wear away)
That old barn has weathered many storms, but is now looking fairly weathered and worn.