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What Is Hyperbaton?

By Emily Daw
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hyperbaton is figure of speech in which words in an sentence are not in their expected order. It is classified as a figure of disorder and often is used to emphasize a particular word or phrase. In English its effect can be quite startling or occasionally confusing, but in a highly inflected language such as Latin it is far more common.

Like other figures of disorder, hyperbaton interrupts the expected flow of a sentence. In English, for instance, it is common for a sentence to have the basic word order subject-verb-direct object, as in, "Michael ate the fish." If it is rearranged as "Michael the fish ate," which has subject-direct object-verb word order, the sentence draws greater attention to itself. The word or phrase that is out of order is particularly emphasized — in this case, "the fish." The point of the hyperbaton in this example might be to emphasize that Michael ate the fish, as opposed to the chicken or the beef or the vegetables.

In metered or rhyming poetry, hyperbaton is sometimes employed to make a sentence fit into the poem's structure. When done poorly, this can result in clumsy phrasing, but when done well it may also add emphasis in desired places. Shakespeare does this in Othello when he writes, "Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow," instead of the expected, "Nor scar her skin that is whiter than snow." The purpose of the hyperbaton here is twofold. On the one hand it makes the line fit into iambic pentameter, but it also moves the word "whiter" closer the beginning of the line for emphasis.

Hyperbaton can be used much more naturally with inflected languages, which tend to have more flexible word order than English. In Latin, for example, the most common sentence structure is subject-direct object-verb. So much grammatical information is stored in the endings of the words themselves that this order can be changed more easily without undue confusion. This would place a mild emphasis on the word that comes first, much as an English speaker might change his or her inflection slightly for emphasis.

There are a number of closely related literary terms that refer to specific types of hyperbaton. Anastrophe, for instance, is sometimes used interchangeably with hyperbaton, but anastrophe more technically refers to moving only one word out of its expected syntax rather than an entire phrase. Hysterologia is a form of hyperbaton where a word or phrase is inserted between a preposition and its object.

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Discussion Comments

By bear78 — On Mar 14, 2012

@burcidi-- I love Shakespeare! And yes, he does use hyperbaton a lot. One that I can never forget is a line from Henry IV: "Uneasy lies the head which wears a crown."

But Shakespeare wrote his works a long time ago. I think very few people, including writers, use hyperbaton today. And you must agree that it's kind of confusing. The simpler sentences I understand but long sentences with hyperbaton can be difficult. Plus, it could change the meaning of the sentence all together.

It's really not something that most of us can use successfully. It takes good knowledge of language and word structures to know how to use it in a way that doesn't alter the meaning to something you don't mean. I don't know about others, but I'm not good with hyperbaton at all.

By burcidi — On Mar 13, 2012

@fify-- Hyperbaton is used in English, just more in literature than in the spoken language. I think it definitely has a poetic, artistic quality in it. Shakespeare is a great example for sure. Not just "The Tempest", but I remember seeing hyperbatons in his "Comedy of Errors" as well.

By the way, some people confuse hyperbaton with anastrophe. The difference between them is that if only one word is moved within the sentence, it is called an anastrophe. If more than one word is moved, it is called a hyperbaton.

So it's possible to mistakenly call an anastrophe a hyperbaton if we don't know this difference.

By fify — On Mar 13, 2012

I don't really use hyperbaton in English because I do find that it sounds odd most of the time. I don't think that sentence structures in English are suitable for using language in this way.

I completely agree with the article that hyperbaton is much more common in other languages, from my experience it is anyway. I speak both Turkish and Hindi, and hyperbaton is commonly used in both. And it never sounds clumsy or odd, probably because of the sentence structures. The word order is also not rearranged in the same way.

For example "tu kam karega?" which means "will you work" in Hindi is in subject-verb format. If it's made into a hyperbaton however, it will be "kam karega tu?" or "work, will you?" is verb-subject. It's very common for the subject to move to the end of the sentence in a hyperbaton in Hindi.

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