An open (cease and desist) letter to a sixth grade English teacher.

Dear Sixth Grade English Teacher,

I know you mean well. I even agree that giving my kid homework assignments that request antonyms for adjectives and adverbs seems pretty pedagogically sound.

However, demanding that students come up with antonyms for any given noun seems like a problem.

What, pray tell, do you expect students to identify as the antonym for "utensil"? Or for "cat"? Or for "mass"?

I would submit to you that these three nouns do not have clear opposites -- or even plausible opposites -- and that they are not unique in this regard.

But framing these vocabulary-builder assignments as if every word in the language must have an antonym, and putting the students on the hook to work out what they are, forces vulnerable children to engage in a category mistake as if it were not a mistake.

I will have you know that some of us, teaching adults, already spend altogether too much time trying to get them to step away from category mistakes. Creating more in the sixth grade vocabulary homework of future generations of college students is not helping.

Just stop it.


The younger Free-Ride offspring's mother

55 responses so far

  • Alex says:

    Obviously, the antonym for "utensil" is "uselesstensil".

  • bill says:

    Please tell me you actually sent this to the teacher in question.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      Not yet. The child is attempting to do the homework now (and maybe half-imagines that I'm claiming these are ridiculous questions to get out of helping come up with the answers).

      I will give the kid the option of conveying the critique to the teacher. Parents are sometimes more of a burden than a help.

  • Madhusudan says:

    The antonym for "utensil" is clearly "fingers" - trust me, as an Indian, I know this for a fact!
    And isn't "dog" the antonym for "cat"?


    But I'm with you on the follies of fostering category mistakes in 6th grade!


    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I thought the opposite of "cat" was "Roomba". Or is that the mortal enemy instead ...

  • $0.01 & N says:

    The opposite of "utensil" is "wrong tool for the job at hand!" The opposite of mass is exorcism.
    The teacher is probably trying to get them younguns to think outside the box. I think this could be an appropriate exercise in a German language class, would it not?
    My elder Free-Ride thinks your Younger Free-Ride should just write "anti-" everything the whole way down.

  • Chris Rowan says:

    A la Schrodinger, the antonym of 'cat' is surely 'dead cat'.

  • Philip Kremer says:

    I came up with


    I know: the first one is a category mistake, since utensil is a count noun and dinnerware is a .... collective noun? Hmmm, no probably a mass term. My wife suggests, simply, nonutensil, noncat, and nonmass.

    In defence of the teacher, maybe the point of the exercise is to see what someone can come up with, and to see if s/he can defend it: this becomes an exercise of the imagination. I have a friend whose child had the following question on a test: "Give an example of risky behaviour." His answer: "This."

    • Zuska says:

      That last answer sounds like something Mr. Z would have done in grade school. Not sure if your friend should be worried or not. Tell them to look out for signs of incipient acquisition of taping gear and hanging out online at

    • Rob Knop says:

      Mass is a form of energy, not its opposite!

      • zbicyclist says:

        Yes, different form. An antonym is often a different form of the same thing. Thus "red" is the opposite of "green" -- they are both colors, but opposite forms (think "stop" and "go").

        The only one I think odd is Utensil. MEtensil? USELESStensile? Fingers? Chopsticks (surely wrong)?

        • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

          For the record, "utensil" was the actual noun-for-which-an-antonym-is-sought on the assignment -- which led to my discovery that the teacher requires an antonym for each vocabulary word assigned across the whole school year.

          "Cat" and "mass" were two more examples of nouns without clear antonyms that immediately occurred to me, which I took to be ample evidence that the blanket demand for antonyms was perhaps ill-founded.

      • agorabum says:

        Agreed; m=mc^2 after all. Mass is an object's inertial resistance to acceleration, which we use as a proxy for weight down here where g is constant.
        Perhaps that would be better as:

        utensil: hand (stolen from the fellow who said fingers)
        cat:rock (dog is another mammal, seems too close...although "fish" is tempting)

        mass: a wave (since it has no mass? Time, an answer down below, seems good too)

  • Chemjobber says:

    The antonym of "mass" for some might be "the Sunday New York Times."

  • scicurious says:

    Unfortunately, I remember this sort of question from the SAT.

  • DJMH says:

    For the antonym of mass, i'd have to go with "antimatter".

    Take heart, maybe your kid's teacher is giving this as one of those wacky IQ/personality tests.

    No, actually, that's worse.

  • theshortearedowl says:

    Antonym of mass - energy?

  • Use lots of drawings to fill up the page. Then Younger Free-Ride simply, inexplicably says to the teacher while handing it in: "pwned".

  • The opposite of cat is square. If the teacher doesn't get it, they're no cat.

  • bashir says:

    This is easy. Simply define the opposite. If a word is needed use un- or -less.

    mass: mass-less

    cat: un-cat

    utensil : non-utensil

    Technically this is correct and totally what I would put when I was a 6th grader. I must have been an annoying student to have.

  • becca says:

    mass - 1/volume *density
    cat- mouse
    utensil- undefined; requires division by zero (1/spoon, but there IS NO SPOON!)

  • jb says:

    It seems they're taught in HS that mass is a verb. I've had students use the words "massed" and "massing" in place of weighed and weighing.

    • nominull says:

      They mean two different things. The mass of an object is always the same, while the weight depends on local gravity. So a spring scale, for example, measures the weight of an object (the spring will deform less for the same object in lower gravity), while a balance scale measures its mass (it takes the same mass to balance the object regardless of gravity). Oftentimes we assume Earth standard gravity and so talk about "weighing" things with a balance scale, but "massing" is the more precise term.

      • jb says:

        Yes, of course, we all know that. However, until "mass" in this context, is accepted as a verb, they shouldn't be teaching students to use it as such.

    • Sam says:

      Yes. These are different. Weight is the force exerted on you by gravity. On the moon, you weigh about 1/6 of your earthly weight. Mass is your inertia, which is the same on Earth, on the moon or in space.

  • sPh says:

    e=mc**2 though, so energy is not the opposite of mass.


  • AME Mason says:

    How do you use a Barometer to measure the height of a tall building?


    b) have a friend throw the barometer off the top of the building. Time the barometers' descent w a stopwatch. Knowing that s=(1/2)at^2... solve the equation

    c) go to the facilities dept. of said building and introduce yourself to the chief engineer. Tell her/him, " check out this cool barometer! I'll give it to you, if you tell me the height of your building."

    -paraphrased from my ninth grade physics class

    I assume: not too many sixth graders have taken a physics class


    : )

  • [...] 5. What is the opposite of “utensil”, or “cat”? [...]

  • Mansfield says:

    In my neck of the hydrodynamic woods, the opposite of mass is buoyancy. OK, buoyancy is really the opposite of weight.

  • ThomasH says:

    I think for "utensil" it would be something like "spanner" as in "spanner in the works" something that makes a function more difficult to accomplish.

    • Marie says:

      A spanner is what the English call a wrench. It's pretty utilitarian until you drop it into the wrong thing.

  • William says:

    My charitable suggestion: have you considered that the teacher might intend for the students to answer, "Cat, mass, and utensil have no opposites. They are nouns, and nouns do not have clearly-defined opposites."

  • Sandman says:

    It's called encouraging creative thinking, rather than learning by rote.

    How do you define the opposite of something which does not have a clear negative? Consider the opposite function, opposite effect, opposite scenario; contrary object...

    Opposite of a cat could be a dog; loneliness; a child; 25 mice; ...

    If you can get kids thinking laterally about stuff then they will become much quicker thinkers...

  • 8 says:

    utensil: ipencil
    cat: komatsu
    mass: hole

  • Mark Thorson says:

    This is one reason why bricks-and-mortar education is doomed. As you've demonstrated, stupid assignments like this one do not survive scrutiny in the on-line world. Someday very soon, the best education you can get will be on-line. The only remaining function of public schools is a babysitting service for parents who are working or just want a break from the kids.

  • Snidely says:

    The opposite of "utensil" is "metensil."

  • Dingbat says:

    Totally agree. Confusion of antonym and complement as well. I would maintain that all nouns can't have antonyms but complements. The opposite of boy=girl?!!! Heck no.

  • Jora says:

    The opposite of mass is vacuum.

  • Floccina says:

    The opposite of cat is Schrödinger's cat. The opposite of utensil rust.

  • Super Sally says:

    Whose parents got in the way???

    Has Y.O. been assigned to write a paper about Germany (all about Germany) yet? That was one that drove me crazy--but as you have all reminded me, it wasn't a drive, only a chip shot at most, and some days a short putt.

    Go carefully so as not to have teacher take it out on Y.O.

    SS & Duke

  • Miles says:

    I think it's great that this teacher has given these homework questions. They force the kid to acknowledge that there are some questions that just don't have answers. The questions force critical thinking, acknowledging that there pointless questions, and even coming up with creative answers even though you know the answer isn't "right". Kids are so trained in school to think that there is only one answer that this exercise should help point out that that is not always the case. Sixth grade is a time to go through this exercise. All of this assumes that the teacher will discuss these questions in class. It's not torture -its real teaching.

    So my answers are:
    The opposite of Utensil is The Starship Enterprise
    The opposite of Cat is Pants
    The oppsosite of Mass is Moss

  • gab says:

    opposite of mass....void?

  • Government schools are prison/seminaries, just like our useless university-welfare complex.

  • Torquil Macneil says:

    The opposite of a utensil is the Philippe Starck juicer (as anyone who has tried to use (rather than just look at) one will tell you).

    The opposite of cat is chick (yeah, baby!)

    And the opposite of mass is, obviously, black mass.

  • Jerome Weeks says:

    It's clearly a clever word problem, not a physics problem.

    The opposite of utensil, as any cat owner would tell you, is cat.

    And the opposite of mass is cat + utensil because you bring the two together, and the cat would be out of there.

    On the bright side, my 6th-grade daughter once brought home a set of math problems that kept all the parents up at night. The next day we found out that the teacher just wanted the students to 'explore' possible routes to an answer. The problems didn't really have a single, right answer.

    Same here, I bet.

  • egd says:

    Mass can be a verb. Troops, for example, may be massed on a border.
    The opposite of mass could be "disperse" or "scatter."

    When you raise an anchor on a ship to the cathead you "cat the anchor."
    An opposite would be "acockbilling" the anchor (the anchor is "acockbill" when it is hanging ready). "Lowering" or "dropping" would also be appropriate, but not nearly as fun.

    I've never heard of "utensil" being used as anything other than a noun.

  • Krigl says:

    Well, seems like the teacher is secret Catholic and Linux user - the opposite of mass is apparently a Black mass.
    And as different cats go, the one in my computer has it's opposite "tac":
    krigl@tallis:~$ echo -e "utensilncatnmass" > freeride
    krigl@tallis:~$ cat freeride
    krigl@tallis:~$ tac freeride

    Utensil still remains a mystery.