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What Is a Hysteron Proteron?

A. Leverkuhn
A. Leverkuhn

Hysteron proteron is a rhetorical technique used in some kinds of literature and other communications that involves reversing a chronological sequence to invert a phrase. This technique can be used for poetic effect, or in the construction of various idioms in a given language. It’s part of a larger category of rhetorical reversals that some call hyperbaton. The word hyperbaton comes from the Greek word for transposition.

As a kind of hyperbaton, hysteron proteron can be done simply to confuse an audience. This technique is sometimes part of a larger “circus type” method of communication that deliberately garbles speech by reversing words or phrases. This is not the only use for hysteron proteron, but it is a common one in its use in performance art. This kind of reversal contrasts to other more comprehensive uses of this technique in a communication or work of art.

Homer employed hysteron proteon in the "Odyssey".
Homer employed hysteron proteon in the "Odyssey".

Another use of hysteron proteron is in literature. Academics often point to the inclusion of this technique in the works of Homer, a renowned epic writer who penned the Odyssey, long considered a classic in literature. In this epic work, the author structures the narrative in a particular way to reverse chronological events. When writers do this in modern literature, or in film, the jumps in the narrative are popularly called “flashbacks” or “flashforwards.” This technique can be a compelling part of the modern narrative.

In some cases, hysteron proteron is simply idiomatic. One common example that is often given in English is someone saying they will put on their “shoes and socks.” Logically, the socks must be put on first. That’s why reversing the phrase and putting shoes before socks is a classic example of hysteron proteron, which in this case, seems to be done for optimizing language flow and possibly for idiomatic effect.

Many who study the phenomenon of hysteron proteron are pursuing its use in a greater narrative as discussed above. The emergence of more visual storytelling methods in the twenty-first century seem to complement ideas like the reversal of chronological events in telling a story. As the modern audience becomes more sophisticated in parsing narrative, it seems likely that hysteron proteron, and other similar techniques, will grow in popularity, where artists will use disordering of events to craft a more intriguing result.

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    • Homer employed hysteron proteon in the "Odyssey".
      By: Juulijs
      Homer employed hysteron proteon in the "Odyssey".