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The opposite of read

My Perfect Non-Reader as part of a Literacy Challenge (perhaps YHB should begin referring to her as My Perfectly Literate Non-Reader) received a homework assignment on Antonyms. Excellent, thought I to myself, antonyms are interesting and fun, and reasonably well-suited to her comprehension level. The assignment listed eleven verbs, with a space to write the antonym, and then a space to write a sentence using the antonym.

Wait—verbs? I think of antonyms as being more of a modifier thing. You know, high/low, tall/short, quick/slow, neatly/slowly, dark/light, good/evil. I know some verbs to have antonyms, often provided by the evil UnPeople, but you have to work to choose verbs that have antonyms. Aggregate/disperse. Survive/expire. Build/destroy. Suck/blow. All right, let’s look at her list.

First the example: Walk. Hmm. The opposite of walk must be ... oh, since it’s an example, they’ve provided an antonym: run. OK, I get that. It’s a slow/fast thing. Then their example: I like to go for a run at dawn. Um, that’s not really a verb, there, or at least, it’s not a terribly good example of a verb for six-year-olds. Why not I like to run at dawn? Oh, I see, it’s not about verbs, its about Action Words. I just assumed that Action Word meant Verb, because, you know, Verb! It’s What’s Happening! But fine, Action Words mean, um, verbs and gerunds and words denoting action.

OK, number one: sit. Opposite of sit. MPN-R came up with stand, which is pretty clearly what they are looking for.

Number two: quiet. Um, action word? Yes, quiet could be a verb, as in At nap time, I attempted to quiet the children, but then its antonym would be ... rouse? Incite? Stir up? MPN-R chose loud, which makes perfect sense, and was again clearly what they were looking for, as long as the Action Word part was being ignored.

Number three: awake: Now, I think you can only use this as a verb in the imperative: Awake ye! Your time has come! The school bus is nigh! In this sense, the antonym would be ... um ... Continue sleeping! or Doze! Anyway, MPN-R chose asleep, which is one of them modifiers, and about the furthest thing from an Action Word I can imagine.

Number four: gallop. That’s an action word. Gallop! And its antonym would be ... er ... um, well based on fast/slow, the opposite of gallop would be walk, although I think you would have to accept limp, straggle or break a leg and have to be destroyed. MPN-R chose stroll.

Number five: read. Oh, come on. What’s the opposite of read? Anyone? Gentle Readers? MPN-R chose watch [tv], because she’s a nerd and a suck-up. I am so proud of her. I would have chosen write.

Most of the others are actually fairly reasonable: go (MPN-R chose stay), open (close), push (pull), unbutton (button), zip (unzip), draw (write). Well, I’m not sure what YHB would have chosen for the antonym of draw. Perhaps erase. Or scribble. But part of the fun of antonyms is that you can choose between them—What’s the opposite of big? Tiny? Or miniscule? Does the opposite of ugly have to be beautiful or can it be wonderful or even nice? I assume there’s a game, tho’ I don’t recall even having played it, where one player says a word, and the other player says its opposite, and the first says the opposite of that opposite, and the second says the opposite of that, back and forth and never repeating words.

Anyway, whatever my Perfect Non-Reader learned from this assignment, Your Humble Blogger learned that the phrase Action Word has no meaning, or if it has a meaning, then the worksheet creators do not know it, and that crap worksheets get passed around and handed out pretty nearly indiscriminately. Implication: teachers are too busy to actually read the crap they hand out. Blame: oh, I don’t know, let’s see who should be blamed for any minor and major problems with our schools. Oh! That’s it! The teacher’s unions!

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


It's the fault of a couple of generations of sloppy instruction in composition and literature. In these fields, teachers have long abandoned teaching formal grammar, formal rhetoric, poetics, and logic. Such instruction, therefore, gives students few tools for thinking, speaking, or writing with precision. It's not that the teachers don't have time to read the crap handouts. It's that they lack the intellectual tools they need to see that "action word" is meaningless term or to see that the worksheet is using the idea of the antonym sloppily as well.

As a college English teacher, I don't know half as much about these matters as I should, but I don't beat myself up about my lack of knowledge (much) because a) what I know I have mostly taught myself, 2) I know more than most of my colleagues, and iii) I know more than I can have occasion to teach, so my learning is mostly adequate, given the complete ignorance of my students in all such matters. But when I meet someone who is truly schooled in these matters, I feel my ignorance keenly.

And if our culture had retained knowledge of such matters, politicians would have a harder time lying and misleading the public, because the public would be better able to recognize the logical fallacies, manipulative or misdirective gambits, and general sloppiness that characterizes what passes for rhetoric in contemporary political discourse.

(a) i'll ask the sweetie for interpretive signage on this matter before the day escapes. hm, we'll need paint. fortunately we have a digital camera and mildly obese data pipes for hi-fi transmission.

(b) that was very funny.

(b) action word opposites:

sit / roll over
quiet / poke with stick
awake / ababyshower
too many traffic lights to ababyshower eels on stilts
gallop / galdown
it's a gal-a-day for you!
read / recite
go / daydream
open / sanitary
push / accompany
unbutton / sew
zip / zwill
draw / emoclew

teacher's unions are worse than terrorists. one can only hope that iraqi fighters to do not move from murder to mimeographs. think of the children....

I disagree. Or at least, I think you've got the big picture right, but I think if My Perfect Non-Reader's teacher sat down with a list of words (sit, quiet, awake, gallop, read, go, open, push, unbutton, zip, draw), she could easily circle the verbs. And for all my snark, I think that Action Words is meant to simply be a synonym for verb, although I can't swear to that. And I further think that if she were asked to come up with a list of ten (or eleven) words for an antonym exercise, she would come up with reasonably good ones, given some time. But she simply took a xerox and stuck it in MPN-R's folder. I don't think she bothered looking at the words on the list, she just took it from an approved source and trusted that it would be reasonably good. And, you know, it was fairly good. I'm just grouchy.

But there's no reason why it has to be only fairly good. There's no reason why Mrs. Example has to use worksheets like that. But it's unreasonable, given her current workload, to expect her to inspect every worksheet she hands out. She has to trust the district/publisher/PTO/TSOR that the book is good, and work from that.

Now, your bigger point, that we've lost a certain cultural base knowledge of grammar, argumentation, poetics, rhetoric, etc, that's an important part of it, too. If we prided ourselves on that sort of thing, a worksheet like this one would have been corrected, improved or rejected at any of six places in the the process that I can think of, just off the top of my head. Such an appreciation could be pervasive throughout the culture, leading to better journalism, better teaching, better politics, better movies and a generally better experience of life. Oh, and better kindergarten worksheets.


Ababyshower is not an Action Word. Well, and I suppose it is if you're doing it right.

What's the antonym of terrorist?


*oops, that should be sanitize

freedom fighter


And the opposite of war is surrender, right?

And it's funnier with the modifier version, so I won't edit it.


Even adults have a lot of trouble with this idea that verbs are words that indicate action. I've heard people say things like "lounging isn't an action, it's just lying there, so 'lounge' must not be a verb, because verbs indicate action." But on the other hand, probably teaching kids about noun syndrome and verb syndrome would lead to more confusion than it's worth.

To make matters worse, the terms "active voice" and "passive voice" are found to be extremely confusing by many people. I've lost count of the number of times people have told me things like, "Well, 'hit' is obviously really active, so 'the ball was hit by him' is active voice." Programmers occasionally have this trouble when they're reviewing my documents--they vaguely remember learning the rule that passive voice should be avoided, so when they see me write "The computer displays an error message" they say "Use active voice!" because "display" isn't a very active thing to do. Sometimes they're right that the writing could stand to be spruced up, but they don't know how to say that without resorting to the wrong terminology that they never really understood anyway.

But that's probably a complaint that has been voiced by me before, so I'll stop.

(Yes, all of the above passive voice is intentional.)

yes, it's important to understand that our enemies hate our right to surrender and we must -- well, if we do not surrender, the terrorists win -- wait, i've got it: we must surrender over there so they don't surrender here!

anyway how can ababyshower not be an action word? i used it that way in my exemplary sentence.

No, Jed, passive is a tense, like the future or the past, only evil. So when you wrote "The computer displays an error message", you were thinking that it was in the active voice, but it's in the passive tense. The correct, "active" tense would read "The computer will not display an error message". Also surrender is clearly a passive word, so instead of the incorrect and passive "Surrender Dorothy", the Witch should have written "Render Dorothy". Strong Verbs for a Strong America!

No, you're right that people still have a Schoolhouse Rock view of grammar rather than a dynamic-rules view. The thing is, I don't think that My Perfect Non-Reader would even remotely understand verb-syndrome, but does get the categorical definitions that Schoolhouse Rock inculcates, which means that if you ask her to list ten adjectives, most of the ten words will be adjectives (or at least words commonly used to modify nouns). The problem is that (as Chris started with) our education in the mechanics of our own language doesn't progress very far beyond Schoolhouse Rock, and in my case even when it did, half of what I learned was false.


A lot of 'opposite' books for kids seem to pick an arbitrary feature to focus on, and mirror with respect to that feature. Well, actually, for small kid's books the feature probably isn't arbitrary; it's chosen to make a good illustration or make the rhyme scheme work.

But in many ways the whole concept of antonyms is inherently arbitrary, because the set of concepts associated with a word is (1) amorphous, and (b) not invertible as a set.

Hopefully the teacher has enough time and energy to look at whether the antonyms chosen by YPLN-R are reasonable, and illustrate an understanding of antonymy (as opposed to comparing them to a list of approved answers).

In an interesting example of still-arbitrary-but-not-contingent antonym use, there's a secret language that involves using the antonyms for each word. I assume that learning the secret language involves memorizing the official-secret-language-antonyms in a lot of cases, since I don't know how you'd be supposed to tell (to make up an example) that the opposite of a table was a mouse. I mean, isn't the-color-of-the-sky-just-after-sundown-on-a-clear-June-evening the opposite of a table too?

But then, if all the opposites made intuitive sense, the language wouldn't be very secret.

The arcane knowledge of grammar is not lost. We have it right here, we linguists and editors. We share it in linguistics courses and the easily-digested Chicago Manual of Style. Mmm, cereal commas.

I agree with Chris that grammar, rhetoric, and logic are useful tools for thinking, speaking, and writing with precision. I value explicit knowledge of grammar and logic (and indeed have devoted my professional life to advancing our explicit knowledge of these fields). However, linguistics teaches that we all have a large store of implicit knowledge of grammar and logic, even if our ideolects vary enough to make our neighbor's speech sometimes appear ungrammatical or illogical. We certainly know enough to avoid being unwittingly taken in by the manipulation and propaganda that passes for current political discourse. We even know enough to recognize the nonsensical aspects of an elementary school worksheet on antonyms of action words. When politicians and news agencies attempt to use language as a meaningless veneer over fears and hatreds, they only find success when their audience is complicit. We have always been at war with Oceania. We have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them over here. Your shampoo could explode, unless you put it in a clear plastic bag. These gain traction only with a public that refuses to think, not a public unable to think.

Day of the thought:
The opposite of terror is knowledge, so the opposite of terrorist is teacher.

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