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

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 See More
Recent Examples on the Web Far too many of us have bought into a false dichotomy—between unfettered chemical usage on the one hand and starvation and famine on the other—that only serves the interests of chemical manufacturers. Shely Aronov, Forbes, 21 Apr. 2022 The 2022 Met Gala will ask its attendees to embody the grandeur—and perhaps the dichotomy—of Gilded Age New York. Elise Taylor, Vogue, 11 Apr. 2022 Though distressing, this dichotomy is hardly surprising. Will Johnson, Fortune, 7 Apr. 2022 That dichotomy, between embracing one’s true nature versus trying to evolve into something else, feels like one faced by the show itself. Angie Han, The Hollywood Reporter, 25 Feb. 2022 Even during the Academy Awards’ infancy, the organization recognized the dichotomy between the two formats with different awards honoring cinematographers’ work — one for color and one for black and white — from 1939 to 1967. Daron James, Los Angeles Times, 5 Jan. 2022 Perhaps this dichotomy is at the center of the debate around American race relations: Black Americans can more tangibly feel the disadvantages of being Black, while white Americans do not feel like they are advantaged in any notable way. David Paleologos, USA TODAY, 5 Dec. 2021 The false dichotomy between prep and improv is linked to an overarching myth that many communication skills are fixed. Palena Neale, Forbes, 28 Mar. 2022 What was evident was the dichotomy between Ottawa police reactions to these occupiers who behaved like a garrison and their responses to Black and Indigenous people who protest against the same white supremacy that hamstrung the nation’s capital. Erica Ifill, refinery29.com, 24 Mar. 2022 See More

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.

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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Dictionary Entries Near dichotomy

dichotomous key



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Statistics for dichotomy

Last Updated

6 May 2022

Cite this Entry

“Dichotomy.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dichotomy. Accessed 17 May. 2022.

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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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