Rhetorical Devices: Antimetabole

This post is part of a series on rhetoric and rhetorical devices. For other posts in the series, please click this link.

Device: Antimetabole

Origin: From the Greek meaning “to turn about in the opposite direction”.

In plain English: Repetition of the same words or phrases in reverse order.

Effect:

  • The focus of the second clause is different from the focus in the first clause because of the reversed word order.
  • The reversal of words is often unexpected and thought-provoking, getting the audience to consider things from a different angle.

Notes:

  • The key message is usually in the second clause or sentence.
  • Antimetabole is frequently used to motivate the audience.

Examples:

One for all and all for one!”     

— Motto of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, 1844

———

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

— Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.

———

“Now, this is not the end. No, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

— Winston Churchill, Mansion House, London, 20 November 1942

———

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”        

— John Kennedy, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1961

———

“I lived in old barrios, ghettos, and reservations and housing projects. I have a message for our youth. I challenge them to put hope in their brains and not dope in their veins. I told them that like Jesus, I too was born in the slum. But just because you’re born in the slum does not mean the slum is born in you, and you can rise above it if your mind is made up. I told them in every slum there are two sides.”

— Jesse Jackson, Democratic National Convention, San Francisco, 18 July 1984

———

“While we pursue these arms reductions, I pledge to you that we will maintain the capacity to deter Soviet aggression at any level at which it might occur. … By these means we seek to increase the safety of Europe and all the world. But we must remember a crucial fact: East and West do not mistrust each other because we are armed; we are armed because we mistrust each other.”

— Ronald Reagan, Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 12 June 1987

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About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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19 Responses to Rhetorical Devices: Antimetabole

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  6. John Keating says:

    Chiasmus or antimetabole? The JFK quote I have seen as a chiasmus – I understand they are similar but which is it or is it both? I am really enjoy your posts. I am Toastmaster living in Cork, Ireland and I love the the exploration of Rhetorical Devices.

    Like

    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi John. Thanks for the comment and question. Glad that you enjoy the blog.

      In fact, the Kennedy quote is both chiasmus and antimetabole. The two devices are very close in form and effect, and many people use them interchangeably. Chiasmus is a reversal of clauses to liven up the language. The words do not necessarily have to be the same. For example, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste and a waist is a terrible thing to mind.” The words “waste” and “waist” have very different meanings. Or this quote from Havelock Ellis: “Charm is a woman’s strength, strength is a man’s charm.” The first part is about women and the last part is about men.

      Antimetabole is the reversal of clauses but using the same words, structure and rhythm to create an opposite meaning. Thus, for example, Mae West’s classic: “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men.” See also any of the examples in the post.

      Thus, antimetabole is a special form of chiasmus, but not every chiasmus is an antimetabole. And so, because the Kennedy quote uses the same words in reverse order it is both a chiasmus and an antimetabole.

      Hope this helps.

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      • John Keating says:

        Hi John

        Thank you for answer, that clears that up for me.
        Kind regards
        John

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        • John Zimmer says:

          Cheers, John. If you are interested in more details, just Google “chiasmus and antimetabole” and you will find several analyses that go into a lot more detail. It can get really nuanced.

          Like

  7. veryhelped:) says:

    Thank you so much for this! I am in an AP Language class and this helped simplify my understanding. Great examples, John!

    Thanks,
    Molly

    Like

  8. english student! says:

    I’m a year 13 English language and literature student in the UK and our coursework consists of a writing and analyzing our own spoken texts. Your definitions are so easy to understand and I love that you’ve listed their effect, makes them much easier to analyze and has been much help. Thank you! Also an example of antimetabole that I’ve come across is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?”

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    • John Zimmer says:

      Dear English Student (sorry, but I don’t know your name),

      Many thanks for the kind comment. I am delighted that you have found the blog posts on rhetorical devices helpful. I very much appreciate your pointing out that the definitions are easy to understand. When it comes to communication, whether written or spoken, simplicity is extremely important. Always keep that in mind. And thank you also for the great quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – a classic antimetabole if ever there was one!

      All the best,

      John Zimmer

      Like

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  10. Fanof Smirnoff says:

    Yakov Smirnoff, Ukranian comedian: “In America, you listen to man on radio; in Soviet Russia, man on radio listen to you.”

    Like

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  12. theworldsgreateststoryteller says:

    Many thanks, John for this helpful info and superb examples.
    Martin

    Like

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