Dear native speaking experts,

Would you agree that the following expressions share only ONE meaning in common and can be differentiated as follows (YES/NO?):

on the contrary
to the contrary

on the contrary - 1. in opposition to what might be expected: She did not exult in her rival's fall, but, on the contrary, commiserated her.
2. on the other hand: People used to say that a Broadway musical was written for musical slobs. Mr. Sondheim, on the contrary, assumes that you have heard some Ravel and Debussy.

to the contrary - 1. = on the contrary 1: Against what they say, the liberal resurrection is not a sign of vitality of the capitalist system, but to the contrary, it is a mark of its failure.
2. to the opposite effect: Working-class to the backbone, just like us. And if he's been filling you up with a lot of toffee to the contrary, more fool you.
3. in spite of smth.; notwithstanding smth.: I know she's unhappy, all her brave talk to the contrary.

Thank you,
Yuri

Last edited {1}
Original Post
In his excellent book*, Bryan Garner points out interesting points regarding these two phrases.

On the contrary marks a contrast with a statement or even an entire argument just made.

To the contrary marks a contrast with a specific noun or noun phrase just mentioned.

Macmillan English Dictionary also gives quite interesting distinction between the two.

On the contrary used for emphasizing that something is true, even though it is opposite of something that has been said.

Ex: The risk of infection hasn't diminished - on the contrary, it has increased.

To the contrary making you think that the opposite may be true.

Ex: Despite all evidence to the contrary, he believed his plan would succeed.

(* Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press 2003)
Yuri is correct. The two expressions on the contrary and to the contrary are not interchangeable except in one discourse function--that of introducing a whole idea (an entire clause) that expresses the exact opposite of what has been stated, expected, implied, or assumed. They are both discourse markers. (To the contrary is less common than on the contrary, and is characteristic of American, not British, English**). For example,

A: You look wonderful. Have you lost weight?

B: On the contrary/to the contrary, I've gained ten pounds. It must be the outfit.

Another example:

Housing prices have not skyrocketed this quarter as predicted. On the contrary/to the contrary, they have remained stable for the third quarter in a row.

On the contrary may not be substituted for to the contrary in other contexts:

The union leader was eloquent in support of the wage increase. Of course the company representative spoke to/*on the contrary, but he didn't look comfortable

Her vigorous protestations to/*on the contrary, she's planning an elaborate wedding

Moreover, To the contrary is not used to mean "in contrast" or "on the other hand."

The bad news is that these expressions are not easy to learn to use. The good news is that they are used mostly in formal, not informal, style.

Marilyn Martin

**Quirk et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (Longman, 1985), Section 9.66, p. 716. note [c]

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