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Antimetabole: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

It's easy to get turned around trying to figure out what 'antimetabole' is, but this lesson should help point you in the right direction. Keep reading to find out more about this emphatic rhetorical device and see some recognizable examples.

A Turn of Phrase: Defining Antimetabole

Have you ever heard parents or teachers proclaim that 'they mean what they say, and say what they mean?' They probably said this to reinforce the idea that their instructions should be followed, but they also inadvertently created a perfect example of antimetabole! As the repetition of words in successive sentences in reverse grammatical order, antimetabole is a rhetorical device used to emphasize a point by creating an easily remembered verbal association with it.

Antimetabole is a Greek term that originally signified 'a turning in the opposite direction,' or 'transposition,' and has been used as a rhetorical tool from antiquity. Of course the Greeks knew that repeating words helps us recall them, but they also realized there were other linguistic tricks that can aid in the memory process.

Reversing grammatical order creates a structure known as a chiasmus (Greek for 'arranged crosswise') in which one sentence is the grammatical mirror image of the other. Such a reversal also aids recollection because it causes our brains to pause for just a moment to be sure that the new (i.e. reversed) grammatical structure makes sense. A bonus feature of chiasmus is that it also sometimes creates a distinct rhythmic pattern, which is ideal for use as a mnemonic device.

Antimetabole in Action

When we add word repetition to the tools provided by a chiasmic structure we then end up with antimetabole. Let's take a look at the example from above to see if we can identify the characteristics we just discussed.

For this exercise, Sentence 1 = they mean what they say, and Sentence 2 = and say what they mean.

In Sentence 1, 'mean' is the main verb, and 'say' is part of a relative clause ('what they say'). These words are repeated in Sentence 2, but 'say' now takes the role of main verb, and 'mean' becomes the verb in the relative clause. Even though their positions have changed, the uses of 'mean' and 'say' still make perfect sense in either context.

Also, just for fun, check out the pattern of stressed and weak syllables: 'they say what they mean, and mean what they say.' Here, you can see that even the rhythmic pattern is shared between the two sentences, making them effective reminders of parental or professorial authority.

Now that we've taken one case of antimetabole apart, you should have no trouble putting the rest of these examples together!

Examples of Antimetabole

Socrates

Antimetabole makes an excellent rhetorical device for philosophers like Socrates who might need to stress a particular ethical or philosophical issue. Take for instance this moral attack by Socrates against gluttony: 'I eat to live, not live to eat.' Here, 'eat' and 'live' have switched places being the main and infinitive ('to live,' 'to eat') verbs in either sentence.

John F. Kennedy

These devices are also useful to politicians and other public speakers. In fact, John F. Kennedy famously used antimetabole to motivate American citizens in their patriotic duties during his 1961 inaugural address: 'Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.' In this example, we find 'your country' as the subject of the first sentence, with 'you' as an object of the preposition 'for.' 'You' has become the subject of the second sentence, while 'your country' takes its place as the prepositional object.

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