Black and White – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Are you looking for a way to tell someone that an issue isn’t nuanced — and that there is a sharp divide between right and wrong? You could say it’s “black and white.”

This post explores this fascinating phrase, which has several distinct meanings.


Black and white” is the sharpest possible contrast, the contrast between pure light and its complete absence.

Black-and-white dualism, a symbolic concept that has existed for centuries, uses this contrast to highlight the divide between right and wrong or good and evil.

Incorporated into a phrase, “black and white” can have three unique meanings:

  • Black and white can mean something is clear-cut one side is correct, and the other completely wrong.
  • Black-and-white thinking means rigid thinking and closed-mindedness; a black-and-white thinker refuses to consider alternative viewpoints.
  • Putting something in black and white means to commit it to paper — you may, for instance, make a verbal agreement with a real estate agent, and a contract puts the deal in black and white.

Less used definitions include “a police car” (black and white in some jurisdictions) and a black and white TV, which does not show color.

Example Usage

The phrase “black and white” can be used in several different ways. Take a look:

  • “My opponent wants you to think gun rights are a complex issue, but in truth, nothing could be more black and white. We either introduce gun control or allow mass shootings to continue.”
  • “My autistic brother is a notoriously black-and-white thinker. If you do the dishes differently than he does, he thinks your way is wrong. He is incapable of considering there is more than one right way to do something.”
  • “We have a deal, then! I’ll put that in black and white for you, and we can move ahead.”


The contrast between black and white has played an essential role in many cultures, stretching as far back as Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, and Ancient China. The concept has, as such, existed for thousands of years.

Symbolism relating to the contrast between these two colors is called black-and-white dualism. Black and white signify day and night, good and evil, right and wrong, and pure and corrupt.

As an idiomatic phrase, “black and white” means a sharp contrast, a clear divide between opposing ideas. When something is black and white, there is little to no nuance.

You can also accuse someone of black-and-white thinking. In this case, you believe that nuance exists, but the rigid thinker cannot see it.

Finally, the phrase “to put something in black and white” means committing an agreement to paper, usually in the form of a contract.

This phrase has an entirely different origin. Paper is white, and printed words almost always appear in black lettering. “Putting something in black and white” refers to this fact.

Phrases Similar to Black and White

Are you looking for similar expressions? One of these may fit:

  • Clear-cut — meaning an issue is well defined, and the truth or right course of action is apparent.
  • Put in writing — you can use this phrase instead of “put in black and white.”

Phrases Opposite to Black and White

Gray is the opposite of “black and white.” So if you believe there is no right or wrong answer and a question is complex, you can speak of “shades of gray.”

A flexible or pragmatic person is the opposite of a black-and-white thinker. You can also say such a person is open-minded.

What Is the Correct Saying?

The correct saying is “black and white.” It usually means a clear divide between two opposing sides.

“Putting something in black and white” means putting it in writing.

Ways People May Say Black and White Incorrectly

Black-and-white dualism plays a role in many cultures. English learners should remember that “black and white” doesn’t only mean “right vs wrong.” It can also simply mean a sharp contrast between two sides.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Black and White

You can use “black and white” where the phrase “clear-cut” would also make sense.


You could call someone who isn’t willing to consider other views a black-and-white thinker, and if you’re asking someone to put an agreement in writing, you can invite them to “put it in black and white.”

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