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Use antimetabole and chiasmus to make your sentences memorable

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • March 9, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Let’s talk about schemes. Not schemes of the nefarious sort, but schemes of word order.

There are various types, including schemes of repetition (“I have a dream that one day … I have a dream that one day …”), schemes of inversion (Yoda’s “Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they”), and schemes of omission (as in “I wrote the first draft, Brandi the second”).

If you want to get fancy, you can use the Greek words Plato and Aristotle used for two schemes of repetition: antimetabole and chiasmus.

Antimetabole is the repetition of words in reverse order, as in “Everyone who loves his country is a patriot, but not every patriot loves his country.”

Chiasmus is the repetition of grammatical structures without repetition of the same words or phrases, as in “It’s hard to make time, but to waste it is easy.”

Still breathing? Good. The hard part is behind you. Now that you know the concepts, you can have some fun with sentences. Let’s take two of them apart.

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” is not only an inversion, but also an antimetabole (or repetition of words in reverse order). Here, if C = country and Y = you, then the order is CY/YC:

“Ask not what your country (C) can do for you (Y); ask what you (Y) can do for your country (C).”

“It’s hard to make time, but to waste it is easy” is a chiasmus (or repetition of grammatical structures but without repetition of the same words or phrases). Here, if A = adjectives (hard/easy) and I = infinitive phrases (to make time/to waste it), then the order is AI/IA:

“It’s hard (A) to make time (I), but to waste it (I) is easy (A).”

The neat symmetry of both schemes can make simple observations memorable, as illustrated by the antimetabole “The French work to live, whereas Americans live to work” and by the chiasmus “What is stolen without remorse, with guilt must be repaid.”

Of the two schemes, chiasmus generally produces a more formal, consciously crafted effect, but both schemes turn up in our everyday speech patterns.

For example, in reference to getting her MBA, a friend once observed, “The guys outnumbered the girls 10 to one. Unfortunately, we had an odd assortment of possibilities, and all the possibilities were odd.”

And of course there’s that unforgettable number from “Finian’s Rainbow”: “When I’m not near the girl I love, I love the girl I’m near.”

Now imagine a team member has asked you to look over some advertising copy. You’re a kind critic, so you say, “Well, it’s not very good, and the parts that are good aren’t very original.”

But if you’re the brilliant but caustic eighteenth-century neoclassical scholar Samuel Johnson, you respond with an extended antimetabole:

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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