Definition of Antimetabole

Antimetabole is a figure of speech in which words or clauses from the first half of a sentence are repeated in the second half of the sentence in reverse order. For example, John F. Kennedy’s famous instruction to the American people in his inaugural address is an antimetabole: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

The word antimetabole comes from a Greek word. Anti- means “against” or “opposite” while –metabole means “turning about” or “change.”

Difference Between Antimetabole and Chiasmus

There is much confusion about the difference between the of antimetabole and . This is because there was a classical definition of chiasmus in that has since become more generalized and subsumed the category of antimetabole. Classically, chiasmus referred to a figure of speech in which concepts were introduced in the first half of a sentence, then repeated in reverse order. Chiasmus, however, was not used for structures in which the words themselves were repeated, but only the concepts. The definition of antimetabole states that words are repeated in reverse order.

Note that the concepts in chiasmus do not have to be synonymous, but instead related in meaning, even if in an opposite sense. The following sentence, “Dark was the night and the day dawned light,” is an example of chiasmus because it repeats the concepts of a time of day and the quality of light. Note also that antimetabole examples may use repeated words in different forms, such as in, “Dark was the night; the remaining nights darker.”

Common Examples of Antimetabole

There are many examples of antimetabole in jokes, famous quotes, and even every day language. There are also short phrases in common speech that use antimetaboles to express doubt or . Take a look at the following examples:

In each of these cases, the speaker is expressing disbelief that things are the way that the listener says they are.

There are also some idioms that are antimetaboles:

Here are some jokes that are antimetabole examples:

There are many famous quotes that are examples of antimetabole, such as the following:

And finally, here are some advertising slogans, music lyrics, and other miscellaneous examples of antimetabole:

Significance of Antimetabole in Literature

There is a sense, upon reading or hearing an example of antimetabole that the entirety of an is summed up in a short sentence. The reversal of terms in antimetabole shifts emphasis to show what’s really important and can surprise the reader or listener by challenging a more commonly held belief. One criticism of antimetaboles, however, is that they can be a little too predictive, especially in the jokes listed above. This is not usually the case in literature, though, as antimetaboles more often than not add or deepen the significance of a line.

Examples of Antimetabole in Literature

Example #1

ALL WITCHES: Fair is foul, and foul is fair
Hover through the fog and filthy air.

(Macbeth by William Shakespeare)

The three witches of Shakespeare’s Macbeth open the play with their spooky chant. Their line, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair,” is a famous example of antimetabole. This line in particular hints at the fact that nothing is quite right in the land of Macbeth and that foul things will come to pass even amongst people who seemed fair.

Example #2

CLOWN: Two faults, madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend; for,
give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry: bid the
dishonest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer
dishonest; if he cannot, let the botcher mend him. Any thing
that’s mended is but patch’d; virtue that transgresses is but
patch’d with sin; and sin that amends is but patch’d with virtue.
If that this simple will serve, so; if it will not,
what remedy? As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so
beauty’s a flower. The lady bade take away the fool; therefore, I
say again, take her away.

(Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare)

The Clown from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night says several examples of antimetabole in one short speech: “Give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry,” “Bid the honest man mend himself; if he mend, he is no longer dishonest,” and “Virtue that transgresses is but patch’d with sin; and sin that amends is but patch’d with virtue.” The Clown character is meant to speak in -like language that contains deeper truths. Other characters don’t take him seriously based on his , but in fact he is wiser than most of the characters in the play.

Example #3

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

(“Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats)

The line “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is one of the most famous from John Keats’s poem. However, scholars argue whether this antimetabole example deepens the meaning of the poem or trivializes it. As a Romantic poet, Keats was certainly interested in beauty, but scholars wonder whether he really believed that all truth lies in beauty and that beauty necessarily equates to truth.

Example #4

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

(Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston)

This is an interesting example of antimetabole because Zora Neale Hurston seems to imply that women decide which things to remember from their own lives and which things to forget in order to create a false sense of reality more in line with their own wishes. It’s interesting to note that the narrator of the novel is a woman; this early statement of Hurston’s seems to call in to question whether the narrator’s story is reality or just what she wants to believe.