Writing 101: What Is Antimetabole? Learn About the Rhetorical Device With Examples From Literature

Written by MasterClass

May 29, 2019 • 3 min read

The art of persuasion is not limited to the contents of your speech or written text. It also depends upon syntax—your specific words and the way you arrange them. One syntactical device used by speechwriters, authors, poets, lyricists, and playwrights is antimetabole.


What Is Antimetabole?

Antimetabole is a rhetorical device where words in the first half of a sentence are inverted in the second half of the sentence. Examples include:

  • When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
  • Plan your life so you can live your plan.
  • The odds are good, but the goods are odd.

The word “antimetabole” derives from the Greek suffix “anti” (meaning “against”) and the Greek root “metabole” (meaning “change”).

How Is Antimetabole Used in Writing?

Antimetabole frequently appears in short, pithy aphorisms. For example: “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” The simplicity and repetition of words help keep such aphorisms in the cultural lexicon for generations.

Antimetabole also appears with some frequency in rhetorical questions: statements phrased as questions for persuasive purposes. Examples include: “Oh you have, have you?” and “Do you live to work, or work to live?”

Antimetaboles will often invert parts of speech. In the example of “the odds are good, but the goods are odd,” the plural noun “odds” transforms into the adjective “odd,” while the adjective “good” transforms into the plural noun “goods.”

What Is The Purpose Of Antimetabole?

Antimetabole exists primarily as a rhetorical and literary device, serving to ingrain a phrase or question in an audience’s mind.

Imagine if, in his inaugural address, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy had said: “You’ve received a lot from your country; now think about how you can give back.” It would have been a nice sentiment, but one that likely would have been buried alongside the other text of the speech.

However, Kennedy did not say this. Instead, he said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This brilliantly phrased antimetabole leapt from Kennedy’s mouth to Americans’ ears, and it remains a powerful call to action decades after it was spoken.

4 Examples of Antimetabole

Despite the ancient Greek origins of its name, antimetabole has remained in use throughout the contemporary era. Some of the more famous uses of the device include:

  1. “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” (Stephen Stills)
  2. “All for one, and one for all.” (Alexander Dumas)
  3. “In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, Party always finds you!” (Yakov Smirnoff)
  4. “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” (John Wooden)

What Is the Difference Between Antimetabole and Chiasmus?

Chiasmus and antimetabole are very similar rhetorical devices, but the two words are not synonyms. Antimetabole by definition features the reuse of words in the first and second halves of a sentence. Chiasmus does not feature repeating words; rather it involves two phrases, where the second phrase is merely a conceptual inversion of the first one.

  1. Antimetabole: “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” This comes from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The words “foul” and “fair” are repeated an inverted in an ABBA pattern. In a sense, it’s a palindrome of words.
  2. Chiasmus: “Who dotes, yet doubts—suspects, yet soundly loves!” This comes from Shakespeare’s Othello. No words are repeated here (apart from “yet”), but there is a conceptual inversion of words. The positive words (“dotes,” “loves”) appear first and last. The negative words (“doubts,” “suspects”) appear in the middle. Once again, Shakespeare has crafted an ABBA structure, but here he simply uses words with similar meaning rather than repeating the same exact word. Learn more about chiasmus here.

Find more writing techniques in Neil Gaiman’s MasterClass.