What Is the Difference between Chiasmus and Antimetabole?

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Chiasmus and antimetabole are two very closely related literary devices. Many literary scholars use these terms interchangeably, though each term refers to a different literary device. Scholars generally know that chiasmus occurs when a phrase is repeated, but reversed, to make a point or emphasize an action. Antimetabole is very similar to chiasmus, but the words and grammatical structure must be reversed, since simply reversing the meaning is not enough. Knowing this, scholars may discover that all instances of antimetabole are also chiasmus, but the reverse is not always true.

The definition of chiasmus is a clause that is inversely repeated. The only requirement of a chiastic phrase is that the two clauses within the sentence must have opposite meanings. For instance, Havelock Ellis’s famous quote, “Charm is a woman’s strength, strength is a man’s charm,” is an example of chiasmus only. Here, the meanings in the two clauses are opposite, but the grammatical structure and the wording are different, meaning it cannot be an example of antimetabole.

Antimetabole is defined as a literary device that reverses the word order in a phrase to juxtapose the meaning. One example is Mae West’s catchphrase, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men." Here, the exact same words, grammatical structure, and rhythm are used create the second clause with the opposite meaning. Many scholars view this device as a subcategory of chiasmus because its rules are stricter and very closely defined.


The humorous phrase “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” is chiastic only. Here, the comedian switches the sounds and words to make a point. The clauses are rhythmic and grind against each other nicely. Chiastic structure can also be used to reverse entire poems because its definitions and rules are so loose. Judith Vorst gives a good example in her short poem: “Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it, even when you have no desire to be with each other. Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other, even when you have no desire to do it.” Changing the wording puts this verse in the chiastic category.

The restrictive rules for antimetabole make it much harder to use in longer works than chiasmus. Scholars usually save antimetabole for shorter phrases like “Home is where the great are small and the small are great.” Both devices are used to great effect in older works, such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, and Alexander Pope’s poetry. Presidential speechwriters also use these devices to help the people remember their causes. One lasting example of this is John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”


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Post 3

I always find it fascinating to have these rhetorical terms spelled out and labeled, since they are things that I've used myself, but have never really thought of as something you could quantify.

I mean everyone has used those phrases, like "I say what I mean and I mean what I say". Or they've read them and maybe thought they were clever without knowing what they were called. Sometimes I almost wish I didn't know what all these terms were because I think it makes it more difficult to relax and enjoy a bit of writing.

Post 2

@Iluviaporos - My favorite of these kinds of sayings come from Dorothy Parker who was a genius when it came to pithy sayings. I believe she might have been the one who said that about the frontal lobotomy.

She's also been known to make unspoken antimetaboles, although I don't know if that counts. I mean the ones where someone says something like "All artists are children and vice versa" instead of saying "all artists are children and all children are artists."

Of course, the most famous of those that Ms Parker has said is probably a bit too adult for me to quote here, but you can definitely find it elsewhere if you're interested. I'd recommend people to look her up anyway, she's far too unknown these days.

Post 1

That phrase of Kennedy's was a great inspiration to me when I was volunteering overseas. I had never really considered myself to be patriotic but knowing that I was one of the only Americans that the people I worked with and interacted with might ever meet kind of sharpens your awareness.

And I like the deeper meaning of the phrase, really. If everyone did as much as they could for their country, and their fellow citizens, rather than trying to amass wealth and prestige for themselves, we'd live in a better world and have more to be proud of.

I don't know if he had a speech writer who came up with that particular chiasmus but it was very clever and pertinent.

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