Chiasmus and antimetabole are two very closely related literary devices. Many literary scholars use these terms interchangeably, though each term refers to a different literary device. Scholars generally know that chiasmus occurs when a phrase is repeated, but reversed, to make a point or emphasize an action. Antimetabole is very similar to chiasmus, but the words and grammatical structure must be reversed, since simply reversing the meaning is not enough. Knowing this, scholars may discover that all instances of antimetabole are also chiasmus, but the reverse is not always true.
The definition of chiasmus is a clause that is inversely repeated. The only requirement of a chiastic phrase is that the two clauses within the sentence must have opposite meanings. For instance, Havelock Ellis’s famous quote, “Charm is a woman’s strength, strength is a man’s charm,” is an example of chiasmus only. Here, the meanings in the two clauses are opposite, but the grammatical structure and the wording are different, meaning it cannot be an example of antimetabole.
Antimetabole is defined as a literary device that reverses the word order in a phrase to juxtapose the meaning. One example is Mae West’s catchphrase, “It’s not the men in my life, it’s the life in my men." Here, the exact same words, grammatical structure, and rhythm are used create the second clause with the opposite meaning. Many scholars view this device as a subcategory of chiasmus because its rules are stricter and very closely defined.
The humorous phrase “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” is chiastic only. Here, the comedian switches the sounds and words to make a point. The clauses are rhythmic and grind against each other nicely. Chiastic structure can also be used to reverse entire poems because its definitions and rules are so loose. Judith Vorst gives a good example in her short poem: “Lust is what makes you keep wanting to do it, even when you have no desire to be with each other. Love is what makes you keep wanting to be with each other, even when you have no desire to do it.” Changing the wording puts this verse in the chiastic category.
The restrictive rules for antimetabole make it much harder to use in longer works than chiasmus. Scholars usually save antimetabole for shorter phrases like “Home is where the great are small and the small are great.” Both devices are used to great effect in older works, such as the King James Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, and Alexander Pope’s poetry. Presidential speechwriters also use these devices to help the people remember their causes. One lasting example of this is John F. Kennedy’s famous phrase “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”