Monday, September 22, 2008

Which is more interesting: speaking of antimetabole or using antimetabole in speaking?

Which, indeed. I found it hard to decide after listening to a conversation on Saturday (Sep 20) between Brooke Gladstone and Juliet Lapidos.

Gladstone is co-host of On the Media, the excellent public radio program that critiques the news media. Lapidos is a columnist for Slate, the excellent online magazine, where earlier this month she wrote about an'-ti-me-tah'-bo-lee, the repetition of words in successive clauses in reverse grammatical order.

This rhetorical device, they noted, has been heard more than once in this year's (seems like this decade's) presidential campaign. The candidates no doubt are trying to channel John F. Kennedy, who proclaimed, "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country."

JFK's statement may be the most famous recent use of antimetabole but Jesus Christ may have invented it when he preached, "The first will be last and the last will be first."

Ironically, Christ may have been the last person to use the device spontaneously. JFK and everyone else were reading a speech, one usually written by someone else.

Essentially, that was the main point made by Lapidos and echoed by Gladstone: antimetabole may be too distinctive for a speaker's own good. He or she may seem more clever but less straightforward, the speech more quotable but less believable.

Clearly, if we over-use antimetabole we run the risk of making memorable speech ordinary instead of making ordinary speech memorable. Save it for an inaugural address or the Bible


Read Lapidos' column and listen to Gladstone's interview for more examples of antimetabole.

Also, see my earlier post on memorable speech.


John Ettorre said...

Nice stuff, Mike. Though I read Slate closely, I had somehow missed that piece, so I was glad to read it here. Thanks for flagging it.

Mike Q said...

Thanks, John. I haven't read Slate regularly, I'm embarrassed to admit, but I never miss On the Media (Sat at 4 pm on WCPN or by podcast). I think you'd like it too.

John Ettorre said...

Yes, I do generally tune that in. But whenever I miss it, Jim Romenesko always posts the transcript on his Poynter site for journalists, so one way or another I do catch it.