Antimetabole - Figure of Speech

Glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Quote from Dr. Seuss - Think and Wonder, Wonder and Think

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In rhetoric, a verbal pattern in which the second half of an expression is balanced against the first but with the words in reverse grammatical order (A-B-C, C-B-A) is called antimetabole. Pronounced as "an-tee-meh-TA-bo-lee," it is essentially the same as chiasmus.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian identified antimetabole as a type of antithesis.

Antimetabole comes from the Greek phrase, "turning about in the opposite direction."

Examples and Observations

The following are excellent examples of antimetaboles used in notable literature:

  • "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better."
    (A. J. Liebling)
  • "Women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget."
    (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937)
  • "Stops static before static stops you."
    (Advertising slogan of Bounce fabric softener sheet, 1990s)
  • "We didn't land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us."
    (Malcolm X)
  • "Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity. It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true."
    (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.)
  • "It is not how old you are, but how you are old."
    (Jules Renard)
  • "If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who has been indicted."
    (Jeffrey Rosen, The New Yorker)
  • "A government that seizes control of the economy for the good of the people, ends up seizing control of the people for the good of the economy."
    (Senator Robert Dole in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination for president, San Diego, August 1996)

The Difference Between Antimetabole and Chiasmus

  • "[T]hose of us who have been granted a disproportionate ability to express ourselves may not always have the best selves to express."
    (Clive James, North Face of Soho, 2006)
  • "The only distinguishing feature of the antimetabole is that at least two terms from the first colon change their relative places in the second, appearing now in one order, now in reversed order. In the process of changing their syntactic position in relation to each other, these terms change their grammatical and conceptual relation as well. Thus in St. Augustine's declaration of a semiotic principle--'[E]very sign is also a thing . . . but not every thing is also a sign'--'sign' and 'thing' switch places in propositions claiming, first, that the set of all signs is a subset of the set of all things, but, second, that the reverse conceptual relation dictated by the reverse syntax does not hold . . .. Seventeen hundred years later, a journalist used the same form to complain about the unfortunate relationship between members of his own profession and the politicians they report: 'Our cynicism begets their fakery and their fakery begets our cynicism' . . .. In each of these examples, separated by almost two thousand years, the arguer builds on the conceptual reversal created by the syntactic and grammatical reversal.
    "A variant of the antimetabole, to which the name 'chiasmus' is sometimes applied, abandons the constraint of repeating the same words in the second colon yet retains a pattern of inversion . . .. Instead of repetition, this variant uses words related in some recognizable way--perhaps as synonyms or opposites or members of the same category--and these related words change positions."
    (Jeanne Fahnestock, Rhetorical Figures in Science. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999)
  • "I, too, was born in the slum. But just because you're born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you, and you can rise above it if your mind is made up."
    (Jesse Jackson, speech at 1984 Democratic National Convention)
  • "You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance."
    (Ray Bradbury)

The Lighter Side of Antimetabole

  • The Sphinx: He who questions training, only trains himself in asking questions. . . . Ah yes, work well on your new costumes my friends, for when you care for what is outside, what is inside cares for you. . . . Patience, my son. To summon your power for the conflict to come, you must first have power over that which conflicts you.
    Mr. Furious: Okay, am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic? "If you want to push something down, you have to pull it up. If you want to go left, you have to go right." It's . . .
    The Sphinx: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage . . .
    Mr. Furious: . . . your rage will become your master? That's what you were going to say. Right? Right?
    The Sphinx: Not necessarily.
    (Wes Studi and Ben Stiller in Mystery Men, 1999)