Antimetabole is the repetition of words, in reverse order, in successive clauses.
The technique is quite easy to spot and predict if one knows that it’s going to be used. Antimetabole can be used in a wide variety of contexts, but many of the most famous examples are found in political speeches. When someone uses the technique, they might be trying to convey a feeling of irony or imply a paradox of some kind. Often, examples of antimetabole take a complex idea, feeling, or topic and reduce it to a simple phrase, like “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” It gets the meaning across, but it does not allow for any nuance or explanation.
Definition of Antimetabole
The word “Antimetabole” is derived from the Greek “antimetabolḗ” meaning “against” or “opposite” and “turning about” or “change.”
Antimetabole can be used by writers to strengthen their argument through emphasis or show the reader how two ideas are related to one another. It’s an interesting technique, one that, when used well, makes an impact on the reader. It can be moving and persuasive in the right circumstances and predictable in the wrong.
When a writer uses antimetabole, they repeat words in two successive clauses, and in the second, the original order is reversed. They don’t have to use the same exact words in both phrases. Sometimes, the words need to change slightly in order for grammar to still apply or for the phrase to sound elegant and interesting. For example, changing a word like “witty” to a word like “wit.” It’s the same word, but when used in the second example it’s going to be grammatically correct. In contrast, there’s the well-known phrase “work to live, live to work.” In this instance, the same exact words are used without any changes between the two phrases.
Famous Examples of Antimetabole
- “You stood up for America, now America must stand up for you.”—Barak Obama in 2011
- “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” John F. Kennedy in 1961
- “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.” —Malcolm X
- “Eat to live, not live to eat.” —attributed to Socrates
- “And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” —Joseph R. Biden in 2021
Examples of Antimetabole
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, one of his best-loved tragedies, he uses the following lines at the end of Act I Scene 1. The passage reads:
Fair is foul, and foul is fair:
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
These lines are spoken by all three witches. They’ve just appeared out of a storm on the Scottish moor and chant, make plans to meet again on the heath and to confront Macbeth when everything that’s about to happen is resolved. These lines come just before the play transitions into Scene 2. Shakespeare uses a perfect example of antimetabole in this excerpt, reversing “Fair is foul” into “foul is fair.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The following lines come from Chapter 19 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel. Lord Henry speaks these lines and directs them at Dorian, responding to his almost confession that he murdered Basil.
I would say, my dear fellow, that you were posing for a character that doesn’t suit you. All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime. It is not in you, Dorian, to commit a murder.
He rejects the idea that Dorian could be capable of such a thing based on Dorian’s appearance and his social status. This is all despite the fact that Lord Henry was the one who planted the darkness in Dorian’s thoughts, to begin with. Lord Henry uses an example of antimetabole when he says that “crime is vulgar” and all “vulgarity is crime.” This is an example where the words are not exactly replicated. Wilde had to change “vulgar” to “vulgarity” in order to make the sentence grammatically correct.
Read more Oscar Wilde poems.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
The next example comes from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass the famed biographical account written by Frederick Douglass. He uses the following sentences in chapter four. The passage reads:
Mr. Gore was proud, ambitious, and persevering. He was artful, cruel, and obdurate. He was just the man for such a place, and it was just the place for such a man. It afforded scope for the full exercise of all his powers, and he seemed to be perfectly at home in it.
The writer uses an example of antimetabole in the third sentence when he refers to Mr. Gore. Douglass goes on to describe Mr. Gore’s opinion of slaves and how poorly he treated them. In his eyes, the “master” was always right and the enslaved person was always wrong. He was in the right place at the right time to demonstrate his cruelty.
Chiasmus or Antimetabole?
Chiasmus and antimetabole are often used interchangeably and are easily confused with one another. But, there is a difference.
- Antimetabole—the repetition of words or phrases
- Chiasmus—the repetition of similar concepts in similar structures.
The latter does not involve the repetition of the same exact words. It is less obvious than antimetabole is and therefore harder to spot and breakdown. Chiasmus looks like antimetabole except for the fact that different words are used to express the same, or a similar, concept. It allows for more complex phrases while antimetabole is more geared towards a single, punchy and memorable statement.
Most definitions suggest that antimetabole is a type of chiasmus, but there is a debate over whether or not this is true.
Why Do Writers Use Antimetabole?
Writers use antimetabole in order to create pithy and effective statements that the reader should remember long after walking away from the text.
The inversion of words feels clever and when used originally, can be quite impactful. This is especially true when a charismatic speaker uses them or they are incorporated into an already skillfully written piece of literature. The technique allows writers, speakers, and actors to convey paradoxes and irony. Through the form, they can present arguments that seem contradictory but when considered on a deeper level, make a great deal of sense.
Related Literary Terms
- Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
- Anadiplosis: the repetition of words so that the second clause starts with the same word/s that appeared in the previous.
- Anagram: rearrangement of the letters in a word or phrase to create a new word or phrase.
- Antanaclasis: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is used several times and the meaning changes.