How to Avoid Confusion with Opposite Word Pairs

Monday, July 183 min read

Opposites can help us understand the world. To make sense of “up,” we need “down.” When traveling, “left” also gives us the alternative of “right.” And what would a description of the “back” be without an understanding of the “front” of something? These opposite pairs rely on each other to provide additional context and detail about a situation. Instead of simply providing information about what something is, they provide valuable data about what something is not. In some fields, such as in medicine and navigation, providing this additional detail is crucial. Let’s take a look at some  helpful opposite pairs.  


Doctors and nurses need to be exact, which is why they use precise language. For example, no one wants their doctor to wonder, “Is it my right or the patient’s right?” during open-heart surgery.

Anterior vs. Posterior — These are adjectives for placement on the body. Anything toward the front of the body is “anterior.” For example, the face is anterior. Anything located toward the back of the body is “posterior,” which is why the buttocks have received the same word as a nickname.

Supine vs. Prone — When a body is lying face upward, it’s in a “supine” position. If it’s lying face down, it’s in a “prone” position.

Lateral vs. Medial — “Lateral” positioning is away from the horizontal middle of the body. It’s the opposite of “medial," which is anything situated at or near the imaginary, vertical midline that divides the body into left and right halves.

Superior vs. Inferior — In anatomy, the word “superior” doesn’t mean better; it means above. “Superior” body parts are situated closer to the head. “Inferior” body parts are closer to the feet. For example, human hearts are superior to stomachs.

Nautical Navigation

While “turn left” and “take the third right” might work for directions to a friend’s house, it relies on knowing where the driver is coming from, or their perspective. To be able to give, or understand, directions without relying on knowing someone else’s positioning depends on navigational terms, such as north, south, east, and west. When on water, relative positioning becomes even less obvious. Sailors have developed a unique lexicon for the needs of nautical navigation.

Bow vs. Stern — The “stern” is the back of the boat, and the “bow” is the front part of the ship. Moving “aft” is backward or toward the stern of the boat.

Port vs. Starboard — It’s not enough to designate the boat's front and back. Sailors also call out the “port” or left side and “starboard” or right side of every ship. These terms are oriented by looking toward the boat's bow.

Windward vs. Leeward — These terms will tell which way the wind is blowing. While sailing, the boat turns “windward” to move it into the wind. If the ship moved “leeward,” it would be headed away from the wind.

Sports and Entertainment

Though stakes are not as high as at a hospital or on the open sea, both performers and athletes have their own specific opposites for describing locations. These terms help avoid ambiguity while directing actors to their positions and quickly calling plays on the field.

Stage Left vs. Stage Right — There are specific names for the various sections of the stage. For example, a performer will move “stage left” to begin a dramatic monologue — this is her left and the audience’s right. All the movements are based on the direction the performer faces, not the way the audience is looking.

Upstage vs. Downstage — If an actor moves “downstage” to start a big musical number, he is getting closer to the audience. But if he goes “upstage,” he moves toward the back of the stage, away from the audience. Years ago, many stages were sloped with the back of the stage raised so the audience could better see the performers in that area. The section furthest from the audience was described as “upstage” because of its height.

Frontcourt vs. Backcourt — In basketball, your team tries to score in the “frontcourt.” Meanwhile, the opposing team is trying to score in your “backcourt,” so this is an excellent place to defend your basket. At halftime, the frontcourt and backcourt switch.

Lateral vs. Forward — Football players make a “lateral” or “forward” pass instead of just throwing the ball up or down the field. A “lateral” pass moves the ball parallel to or away from the opponent’s goal line, and “forward” passes move toward this all-important marker.

Featured image credit: fizkes/ iStock

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