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 literary devices of antimetabole and chiasmus. This is because there was a classical definition of chiasmus in rhetoric 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 sarcasm. Take a look at the following examples:

  • Oh you have, have you?
  • Oh it is, is it?
  • Oh she will, will she?

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:

  • You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.
  • Never let a fool kiss you, or a kiss fool you.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
  • Fail to prepare and you prepare to fail.

Here are some jokes that are antimetabole examples:

  • What’s the difference between a train conductor and a teacher? One teaches you to train your mind, while the other teaches you to mind the train.
  • What is the difference between a crocodile and a baby?
    One makes its bed in a river and the other makes a river in its bed
  • What’s the IRS’s motto? We’ve got what it takes to take what you have got.

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

  • “It’s not the men in my life that count—it’s the life in my men.” –Mae West
  • “I desire to see in this country the decent men strong and the strong men decent.” –Theodore Roosevelt
  • “All for one, and one for all.” –Alexander Dumas (Motto of the Three Muskateers)
  • “Those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” –Bernard Baruch

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

  • “I am stuck on band-aid, because band-aid’s stuck on me.” Band-aid commercial
  • “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” – Stephen Stills, “Love the One You’re With”
  • “With my mind on my money and my money on my mind.”- Attributed to Snoop Dogg, “Gin and Juice”
  • “We do what we like and we like what we do.” – Andrew W.K., “Party Hard”

Significance of Antimetabole in Literature

There is a sense, upon reading or hearing an example of antimetabole that the entirety of an argument 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 syllogism 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 riddle-like language that contains deeper truths. Other characters don’t take him seriously based on his persona, 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.

Test Your Knowledge of Antimetabole

1. Which of the following statements is the best antimetabole definition?
A. A sentence in which words from the first half are repeated in reverse order in the second half.
B. A figure of speech that repeats concepts in reverse order, but not the same words.
C. A statement in which the second half of the sentence contradicts the first half.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. B refers to the definition of chiasmus.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following reasons is NOT a use of antimetabole, either in literature or common speech?
A. To express doubt or sarcasm.
B. To seemingly sum up an argument in its entirety.
C. To contradict oneself.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following lines from the Clown in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night contains an example of antimetabole?

Well, God give them wisdom that have it; and those that are
fools, let them use their talents.


Wit, and ‘t be thy will, put me into good fooling! Those wits
that think they have thee do very oft prove fools; and I, that am
sure I lack thee, may pass for a wise man: for what says
Quinapalus? ‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’


God send you, sir, a speedy infirmity, for the better increasing
your folly! Sir Toby will be sworn that I am no fox; but he will
not pass his word for twopence that you are no fool.

[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. It contains the line “Better a witty fool than a foolish wit,” which is an example of antimetabole.[/spoiler]