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

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 declaration also sets up a false dichotomy by comparing its policy proposals to lockdowns. Tyler Cowen Bloomberg Opinion (tns), Star Tribune, "The Great Barrington Declaration: A dangerous libertarian strategy for herd immunity," 16 Oct. 2020 The game's arbitrary dichotomy between movement points and action points frustrated me even more. Jim Salter, Ars Technica, "I played 15 hours of Baldur’s Gate 3 early access, and I want them back," 6 Oct. 2020 The reality lies between this false dichotomy and is still grim, as evidenced by the sheer number of infections, deaths, and lingering disabilities. Ed Yong, The Atlantic, "The Core Lesson of the COVID-19 Heart Debate," 21 Sep. 2020 This dichotomy is throwing a key indicator, return on equity, into a funk, says Goldman Sachs. Bernhard Warner, Fortune, "Global stocks, U.S. futures recover on hopes Trump will too," 5 Oct. 2020 Even then, the language used for such a dichotomy was generally observational rather than judgmental. Ligaya Mishan, New York Times, "When Invasive Species Become the Meal," 2 Oct. 2020 Now, as winter looms and the pandemic continues, another dichotomy has emerged: enter another awful lockdown, or let the virus run free. Ed Yong, The Atlantic, "The Pandemic Is an Intuition Nightmare," 9 Sep. 2020 This is a simplistic dichotomy, albeit useful for highly melodramatic storytelling. Washington Post, "A look back at how Tarzan swung into immortality," 19 Aug. 2020 While Game 1 of the Mavericks-Clippers first-round series Monday night represented a playoff newcomers vs. title contenders dichotomy, Doc Rivers wasn’t overlooking Dallas’ threat. Callie Caplan, Dallas News, "Clippers coach Doc Rivers says it’s ‘impossible’ to look past Luka Doncic, Mavs," 18 Aug. 2020

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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Time Traveler for dichotomy

Time Traveler

The first known use of dichotomy was in 1610

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Statistics for dichotomy

Last Updated

20 Oct 2020

Cite this Entry

“Dichotomy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dichotomy. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

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More Definitions for dichotomy


How to pronounce dichotomy (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of dichotomy

formal : a difference between two opposite things : a division into two opposite groups


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

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