di·​chot·​o·​my | \dī-ˈkä-tə-mē 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

One concern is that the law creates a false dichotomy between victims’ and defendants’ rights, as if the victims and defendants are the two sides facing off in a trial. German Lopez, Vox, "How Marsy’s Law performed in the 2018 midterm elections," 7 Nov. 2018 The messages arrive daily, reminding the family of its new dichotomy. Greg Bishop, SI.com, "A College QB's Suicide. A Family's Search for Answers.," 26 June 2018 Kilmeade is presenting the kind of false dichotomy to his overwhelmingly conservative viewers that has often been effective with right-leaning Americans on immigration policy issues. Eugene Scott, Washington Post, "Fox News host’s ‘not our kids’ statement, and the limits of compassion," 22 June 2018 The problem is that this dichotomy—you’re either on or off, zero or 100—doesn’t actually represent how people use their phones. David Pierce, WSJ, "Apple Needs to Fix ‘Do Not Disturb’ Mode—Here’s How," 3 Apr. 2018 In a recent episode, Brooklyn Nine-Nine allows Amy to break down this dichotomy while recognizing its cultural pervasiveness. Sauleha Kamal, The Atlantic, "The Character Who Made Me Love Brooklyn Nine-Nine," 12 June 2018 This, however, is a false dichotomy, since religious people are also spiritual — because religion deals with God, angels, heaven and hell, which are — what else? — spiritual. Lorraine V. Murray, ajc, "Beware of the church demon on Sunday mornings," 1 June 2018 Fast forward one year, to right now, and the dichotomy on the Dolphins — the disconnect — is repeating itself. Greg Cote, miamiherald, "In great disconnect on Dolphins' expectations, these factors will tell us who's right," 31 May 2018 But the underlying dichotomy of US policy goals in Europe has a familiar ring. Howard Lafranchi, The Christian Science Monitor, "How strong a Europe does US want? In Trump era, that's still the issue.," 13 July 2018

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

Statistics for dichotomy

Last Updated

14 Nov 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for dichotomy

The first known use of dichotomy was in 1610

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More Definitions for dichotomy



English Language Learners Definition of dichotomy

: 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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