What is Antimetabole?

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Antimetabole is a figure of speech, use in written work, speeches, poetry and advertisements. It is a form of chiasmus, and the word comes from the Latin anti, which means "against" or "opposite," and metabole, which translates to "turn around" or "about." In antimetabole, a person uses the same words in two independent clauses but in reverse or changed order. The second clause shifts emphasis or the meaning of the first clause, by reversing the words.

Often in antimetabole, the direct object of the subject is reversed. It becomes the subject of the subsequent clause. The most famous antimetabole in modern speech is John F. Kennedy’s:

"Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."

From a grammatical sense, the direct object “for you” in the first clause, becomes the subject “you” in the second. The subject “your country,” in the first clause, becomes the direct object “for your country" in the second clause. As you can also see from this example, emphasis in the second clause results in a person not wondering what they will get but wondering what they can give. Stress is placed on the second clause, and you can even hear it in the delivered speech, which was recorded. Its effect was to place focus on the contribution Americans might make to their world.


Sometimes an antimetabole doesn’t necessarily change meaning. From Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who the quote, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant,” is antimetabole that really doesn’t alter meaning. Emphasis placed on both clauses as Horton assures his listener that he is “faithful 100 percent.”

Political speeches remain one of the most frequent sources from which we glean antimetabole examples. Winston Churchill used them frequently. The next two antimetabolic quotes are his:
”Let us preach what we practice—Let us practice what we preach.” “It is not even the beginning of the end but is perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

President Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, used antimetabole often, as in this example:
“East and West do not mistrust each other because we are armed; we’re armed because we mistrust each other.”

In Jesse Jackson’s address to the Democratic Convention in 1984, he offers this antimetabole:
“But just because you're born in the slum doesn’t mean the slum is born in you” .

An antimetabole can also imply humor as it does in the quote attributed to Samuel Johnson in Boswell’s Life of Johnson:
“This man I thought had been a Lord among wits, but, I find, he is only a wit among Lords.”

You can also find antimetabole in advertisements, as with this next advertisement for Starkist Tuna:
“Starkist doesn’t want tuna with good taste. It wants tuna that tastes good.” .

In literature, antimetabole can become high-toned and steeped with meaning. Shakespeare’s lines from Twelfth Night are an excellent example:
”Virtue that transgressed is but patch’d with sin,
And sin that amends is but patch’d with virtue.”

Being aware of the many examples of antimetabole around you can heighten your enjoyment of the different rhetorical vices that we commonly employ. It’s also an impressive word to know, merely because so many people are not aware that this reverse repetition is actually a defined form of speech.


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