di·​chot·​o·​my | \ dī-ˈkä-tə-mē How to pronounce dichotomy (audio) also də- \
plural dichotomies

Essential Meaning of dichotomy

formal : a difference between two opposite things : a division into two opposite groups Her essay discusses the dichotomy between good and evil in the author's novels.

Full Definition of dichotomy

1 : a division into two especially mutually exclusive or contradictory groups or entities the dichotomy between theory and practice also : the process or practice of making such a division dichotomy of the population into two opposed classes
2 : something with seemingly contradictory qualities it's a dichotomy, this opulent Ritz-style luxury in a place that fronts on a boat harbor— Jean T. Barrett
3 : the phase of the moon or an inferior planet in which half its disk appears illuminated
4a : bifurcation especially : repeated bifurcation (as of a plant's stem)
b : a system of branching in which the main axis forks repeatedly into two branches
c : branching of an ancestral line into two equal diverging branches

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Dichotomy and False Dichotomy

The two most commonly used senses of dichotomy are easily (and often) confused. The older one refers to the division of something into two groups that often are mutually exclusive or contradictory (as in “the dichotomy between good and evil”). Like trichotomy (meaning “division into three parts”), this sense denotes separation into different elements, but it adds the connotation of oppositeness. The newer sense of dichotomy denotes a thing that appears to have contradictory qualities, such as a lemonade stand found in a war zone. Dichotomy is frequently found in the company of the word false; a false dichotomy is a kind of fallacy in which one is given only two choices when in fact other options are available.

Examples of dichotomy in a Sentence

The amusing spectacle of the recent presidential vote in Florida should remind us of the persistence of the federal-state dichotomy. — Eugene Genovese, Atlantic, March 2001 At the close of this millennium, the favored dichotomy features a supposed battle called "the science wars." — Stephen Jay Gould, Science, 14 Jan. 2000 … to insist on its being either symbol or fact is to dwell needlessly on a false dichotomy. — Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches, 1988 … the Inuit concept of their environment was centred around the dichotomy between land and sea. — Ian Hodder, Reading the Past, 1986 Her essay discusses the dichotomy between good and evil in the author's novels. her outfit is a sartorial dichotomy: an elegant gown and ratty old tennis shoes
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Recent Examples on the Web The nudge-versus-shove dichotomy is probably a false one. Adam Rogers, Wired, 8 Oct. 2021 The dichotomy is at once peculiar and pedestrian: Though the unvaccinated stand most at risk of infection, their refusal of the shots shows many are convinced the threat is overblown. Matt Sedensky, Anchorage Daily News, 30 Sep. 2021 But the active/reactive dichotomy is the curse of anyone playing the Thane of Cawdor, incohesive at his core. Chris Jones, chicagotribune.com, 19 Sep. 2021 Situating this activity on a continuum versus a dichotomy is valuable. Palena Neale, Forbes, 21 Sep. 2021 The long view, then, becomes about seeing infection and inoculation not as a dichotomy but as an inevitable interaction—which is actually the point of vaccines. Katherine J. Wu, The Atlantic, 16 Sep. 2021 Tuesday’s results represented a stark dichotomy for Elder: The Los Angeles native, making his first run for office at 69, rocketed past more experienced candidates to become the darling of conservatives. James Rainey, Los Angeles Times, 14 Sep. 2021 Usually when collective action problems are discussed, a crude dichotomy emerges between individual action and policy. Jan Dutkiewicz, The New Republic, 28 July 2021 But with Asperó and Schindler’s result pointing compellingly to , and Woodin building the case for , a clear dichotomy has established itself, and an outright winner seems newly possible. Quanta Magazine, 15 July 2021

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'dichotomy.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

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First Known Use of dichotomy

1610, in the meaning defined at sense 1

History and Etymology for dichotomy

borrowed from New Latin dichotomia, borrowed from Greek dichotomía "division into two parts (of the moon, in logic), bisection," from dichótomos "cut in half, dichotomous" + -ia -ia entry 1

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Learn More About dichotomy

Time Traveler for dichotomy

Time Traveler

The first known use of dichotomy was in 1610

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Dictionary Entries Near dichotomy

dichotomous key



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Statistics for dichotomy

Last Updated

21 Oct 2021

Cite this Entry

“Dichotomy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dichotomy. Accessed 28 Oct. 2021.

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More Definitions for dichotomy


di·​chot·​o·​my | \ dī-ˈkät-ə-mē also də- \
plural dichotomies

Medical Definition of dichotomy

: a division or forking into branches especially : repeated bifurcation

More from Merriam-Webster on dichotomy

Nglish: Translation of dichotomy for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of dichotomy for Arabic Speakers

Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about dichotomy


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