By Dr Oliver Tearle
Words, of course, are the tools of the writer’s trade. But what are some good words, perhaps even some unusual but wonderfully descriptive words, which mean ‘argumentative’ or ‘quarrelsome’?
Here are some of the best, most useful, as well as some of the most unusual synonyms to describe belligerent, argumentative, and pugnacious people. And, to offer balance, some of the best antonyms for ‘argumentative’, too. Let’s begin…
Synonyms for ‘argumentative’
QUARRELSOME is a common synonym for ‘argumentative’, denoting someone who is inclined to quarrel or dissent with people or particular views. Here, the person as much as the argument are the focus: the suggestion is that the person simply likes disagreeing with people.
Another popular synonym for ‘argumentative’ is CONTENTIOUS. This word can be slippery, though, as it can refer both to a person (who is being contentious over an issue) and the issue itself (this is ‘a contentious issue’ that is, indeed, worthy of debating and disagreeing with).
A less ambiguous synonym is DISPUTATIOUS, denoting someone fond of disputing a point or arguing over it.
A more formal way of describing someone or something (such as a piece of writing or a speech) argumentative in nature is to call them (or it) POLEMICAL. This adjective is ultimately derived from the ancient Greek for ‘war’, but is more commonly used to describe pamphlets, speeches, essays, and even novels or films (and other works of art) which are making an argument.
Indeed, there are other words with a more military flavour which can be used to mean ‘argumentative’, if you wish to convey a stronger sense of disputation. Indeed, COMBATIVE (suggesting physical combat, but also used about heated disagreement), BELLIGERENT, and PUGNACIOUS (these last two having as much to do with physical fighting as verbal argument) are all options, too.
If someone is making an argument for the sake of argument, they might be described as CONTRARY (pronounced con-TRAIR-ee), as in the famous nursery rhyme ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary’. Contrariness is a the kind of argumentativeness where someone appears to be adopting an argumentative stance for the sake of it, or to make a controversial point that goes against mainstream thinking. Indeed, the word PERVERSE is another synonym for this kind of argumentative streak.
Sometimes it may be felt that someone is arguing over quite small things, picking holes for the sake of being pernickety or pedantic. Synonyms for this kind of argumentativeness include FACTIOUS (from medieval French and originally meaning ‘mutinous’ or ‘rebellious’!), QUIBBLING, or CAPTIOUS – this last word derived from the Latin meaning ‘sophistical’ or ‘fallacious’, i.e., an argument or objection that doesn’t really hold water.
Of course, if someone is arguing just because they’re naturally an argumentative person, prone to immature bouts of disagreement, you can always call them STROPPY.
If these synonyms strike you as too familiar, and you really want to show off your vocabulary, you can always reach for one of the rarer synonyms for ‘argumentative’. For instance, there’s POLRUMPTIOUS, a rather splendid word to describe someone who’s argumentative and always convinced they’re right.
FRAMPOLD, meanwhile, is a rare word meaning ‘peevish’ or ‘quarrelsome’. Although its etymology is the subject of debate (fittingly, given the topic of this article), it’s thought that it might be related to the word ‘poll’, meaning ‘head’, and to mean something similar to ‘headstrong’.
Or, if you prefer to be more Latinate in your descriptions, you can always describe someone who is looking for an argument as DIVERSIVOLENT. The OED’s only recorded use for this adjective is The White Devil, an early seventeenth-century play by John Webster, one of Shakespeare’s great successors on the Jacobean stage. Webster uses it twice, to describe a woman and a lawyer: ‘This debausht and diuersiuolent woman’; ‘You diuersiuolent Lawyer; marke him.’ The word comes from the Latin meaning ‘wish’ (the ‘-volent’ suffix is from the same root as the word volition), and therefore means ‘wishing for difference’ or, if you will, wanting to disagree.
And you can always describe someone argumentative and captious as a SMELLFUNGUS, a grump who is always finding fault with things. In other words, a captious or fractious person. Another useful noun for describing an argumentative person is a BREEDBATE, used to describe someone looking for an argument.
One of our favourite rare synonyms for ‘argumentative’ is ARISTARCHIAN. It means, more specifically, extremely critical, and has a curious literary origin. It’s derived from Aristarch, which the OED defines as the ‘name of a severe Greek critic of the Homeric poetry, who rejected many lines of it as spurious; hence used connotatively.’ An Aristarch is thus a severe critic – the name is derived from Aristarchus of Samothrace (c. 217-145 BC), a Greek critic and grammarian who was known for his contribution to Homeric studies.
There’s also ERISTIC. This is more of a descriptive adjective that pertains to the concept of argument or controversy. It’s from the ancient Greek deity Eris, goddess of strife.
Antonyms for ‘argumentative’
Many antonyms for ‘argumentative’ can be formed simply by negating some of the above synonyms to create their opposites: so UNCONTENTIOUS, NONBELLIGERENT, and even UNCOMBATIVE. But these all throw the emphasis on a negative, on the absence of argument. What if you want to turn that quality into something more positive?
Well, there’s always AGREEABLE. As Benjamin Disraeli once quipped, ‘My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me.’ If someone isn’t arguing but is instead agreeing with you, this seems like the natural word to reach for. And a person and a situation can be described as ‘agreeable’.
IRENIC is a rare antonym for ‘polemical’, meaning simply ‘non-polemical’ or ‘peaceful’. It comes from the ancient Greek for ‘peace’, so neatly dovetails with a word like ‘polemical’.
This concludes our pick of the best synonyms and antonyms for argumentative people or behaviour. Of course, there are many others we could have included, but we opted for the most interesting as well as the most directly useful. Which other useful words describing quarrelsome behaviour (or writing) would you add to this list?