Firstly, the conjunctive adverb on the contrary is used to deny a previously stated or implied idea.
He wasn't happy. On the contrary, he was furious.
In this example, the second sentence shows that the first idea (the suggestion that he would be happy) is incorrect.
Just because I'm alone doesn't mean I'm lonely. On the contrary, I enjoy being by myself.
Again, the second sentence ("I enjoy being by myself") is a denial of the previously implied idea that the person is lonely.
Helpful hint: The word contrary means opposite. Therefore, when we say "on the contrary, ..." we are saying something similar to "Actually, the opposite is true." For example, I'm not short. On the contrary, I'm quite tall!
Improper/Awkward Use of On the Contrary
With this definition in mind, some people (e.g. my students) occasionally use on the contrary in the same way as however, when in fact, these two adverbs are usually used differently. Here are some examples.
Donald Trump was not a great public speaker.
On the contrary, Obama was a great presenter and speaker.
Here, the fact that Obama was a good speaker doesn't refute or deny the idea that Trump was not a great speaker. Each sentence has a different subject because they are about different people. Therefore, it would be more natural here to use another word to show contrast such as However, On the other hand, etc.
Most teachers give homework to students.
On the contrary, some people argue that homework should be banned.
Similarly, even though some people think that homework should be banned, it doesn't change the fact that most teachers assign homework. In other words, the second sentence doesn't show that the first one is incorrect. Use another word for contrast here such as However/Nevertheless/Nonetheless, etc.
On the Contrary: A Simple Example
This example shows the difference clearly.
✔ I'm not short. On the contrary, I'm tall. (The second sentence proves the first one is incorrect.)
✘ My brother is short.
On the contrary, I'm tall. (The second sentence doesn't prove the first sentence is incorrect because it's about someone else. Use a word like 'However' here.)
- Use on the contrary to show that a previously-stated or implied idea is incorrect.
Do you think you understand? Try our on the contrary quiz.
Instructions: If the statement after the blank shows that the opposite of a previously stated/implied idea is true, select on the contrary. If the statement is only used to indicate contrast, select however.
1. The plan won't help the economy. , it will cost our country billions of dollars.
✔ On the contrary -- The second sentence shows that the idea that the plan will help the economy (this is the proposed idea being discussed) is incorrect.
However -- These ideas don't contrast. They are both negative (bad) ideas.
2. I didn't think his joke was improper. , I found it quite funny.
✔ On the contrary -- The second sentence shows that the first idea (that you thought that the joke was improper) is incorrect.
However-- These ideas don't contrast. Both sentences show that you liked the joke.
3. Sportscars are fast. , they are usually pretty expensive.
✔ However -- These ideas contrast.
On the contrary -- The second sentence does not show that the first one is incorrect.
4. Having money is important. , it isn't everything.
✔ However -- These ideas contrast.
On the contrary -- The second sentence does not show that money isn't important (this idea may still be correct).
5. A: Do you think the new law will help the economy?
B: No. , I think it will cause more unemployment.
✔ On the contrary -- The second sentence shows that the first idea, that the law will help the economy, is incorrect.
However-- You cannot use 'However' (or but) after 'no' here because 'No' represents a negative answer to the question. The second sentence is another negative idea, so there is no contrast between 'No' and it.
5. It's not that I don't care. , I'm writing this letter because I care deeply about you.
✔ On the contrary -- The second sentence shows that the first idea, the idea that you don't care, is incorrect.
However -- These ideas don't contrast. Both sentences suggest that you care.
They are not the same, but sometimes they can both be used between sentences.
Let me first show you how they differ with an example:
✔ One plus one isn't three.
However, it's two.
✘ That's not a cat.
However, it's a dog.
As you can see, you cannot use However to show an idea is 100% false. If the purpose of the second sentence is to correct a mistaken idea in the first sentence, you cannot join it with 'However'. You should use on the contrary in these cases (or nothing at all).
Here's a trickier example where they can be both used:
✔ People sometimes think Paul is British. However, he's South African.
✔ People sometimes think Paul is British. On the contrary, he's South African.
However is possible here to show the contrast between what people think and reality. The fact that he's South African doesn't mean that people don't think he's British. If we delete "People sometimes think" then using However becomes impossible:
✘ Paul is British.
However, he's South African.
Summary of Differences Between 'On the Contrary' and 'However'
- You cannot use However to introduce a statement that shows the first sentence is completely false.
(1 + 1 equals 3. However, 1 + 1 equals 2.)
- You cannot use On the contrary if the second statement doesn't show the first idea is incorrect.
(My brother is short. On the contrary, I'm tall.)
II hope this is helpful and has given you some clarity, not confusion. If you have questions, please leave a comment below.
-- Written by Matthew Barton of Englishcurrent.com (copyright)