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Antimetaboles and Chiasmuses, and Expletives, Oh My!

By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle

What are Antimetaboles?

When you want to make your work memorable, it helps when you make the meaning clear. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. When you do it like I just did, it’s called antimetabole. And when the order is reversed like that, your readers at least believe that they understand it backwards and forwards. There are a few ways of doing this.

The classic antimetabole consists in inverting the repetition of words or phrases, but keeping the same logic, and the same theme. When the reader understands the first half, the second will make perfect sense and act as a complementary statement.

Some Examples

Mark Twain’s famous, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” Keeping the two phrases approximately the same length, also means it will keep the same meter and is thus also suitable for poetry.

Another famous example, JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

And finally: “Should you believe the man because you like the promise he made, or the promise because you like the man who made it?”

And How About Chiasmus?

The other way of doing it is called chiasmus, (key-az-muss) and it’s a little trickier. In a chiasmus, the lines must be symmetrical but opposite in meaning. They don’t have to be the same length, or use the exact same words, but the syntax must also be reversed. In the above examples, the syntax remains the same.

And here they are in famous speeches:

Let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate.” John F. Kennedy

“We shape our buildings, and afterward our buildings shape us.” Winston Churchill.

We were elected to change Washington, and we let Washington change us” John McCain.

Note how in all three, the syntax is also inverted.

Examples that don’t use the same words:

“Building my reputation took me a lifetime; I destroyed it in just a few careless seconds.”

Now … About Expletives.

You were waiting for this, right? Let me recommend that you avoid using expletives in your writing.

No, not those kinds of expletives. Nothing wrong with those at all, depending on what you’re writing. People have stopped deleting those expletives in polite company and even in journalism, they’ve become so non-controversial.

I mean the other kind of expletives. The kind you probably learned about in grade school. From your teacher, not your classmates.

I mean expletives like these:

It was a dark and stormy night.

There once was a man who owned a dog.

Here is a story you never heard before.

In the above examples, It, There and Here are expletives. The reason you should avoid them in your writing is because they are extremely weak. You can do so much better. You just have to catch them and think a little.

Unlike the colorful kind of expletives, these are very drab. They are lazy words and they make writers even lazier. These words don’t actually do anything in the sentence. They serve no purpose whatever. The only thing they do is require some form of the verb to be, bringing you at least halfway to writing in passive voice. They are like zeros a numerical expression in that they serve only to represent the absence of anything of substance. They just hold a place and keep it empty. They are, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the words of a slothful scribe, wholly devoid of sound or fury, signifying nothing where there should have been a vision of some kind of scene. And I’m as guilty as anyone else of using them.

Here’s How to Spot Them!

In your second draft, use your word-processor’s find feature hunt them down and then try to think of a better way to open that paragraph or chapter or whatever that passage is, and come up with something better. How hard can it be?

So instead of It was a dark and stormy night, begin with something more bombastic: Lightning split the night sky, dragging the thunder across it in its wake.

Instead of “There once was a man who owned a dog,” Stanley owned many dogs, but his favorite was the Shih-tzu that always growled and barked at his stepmother.

Instead of “Here is a story you never heard before,” How about, “I’ve got a story you won’t believe if I tell you, even if you would have believed it if you heard it from someone else. That’s how fantastic a story it is, especially the way I tell it.”

Once you become comfortable in weeding these pesky expletives out, you’ll find it becomes much easier to create more interesting openers moving forward. Happy Writing!

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