A figure of speech in which the natural or conventional order of words, actions, or ideas is reversed. Hysteron proteron is generally regarded as a type of hyperbaton.
The figure of hysteron proteron has also been called "inverted order" or "putting the cart before the horse." Eighteenth-century lexicographer Nathan Bailey defined the figure as "a preposterous way of speaking, putting that first which should be last."
Hysteron proteron most often involves inverted syntax and is used primarily for emphasis. However, the term has also been applied to inversions of narrative events in nonlinear plots: that is, what happens earlier in time is presented later in the text.
From the Greek hysteros and proteros , "latter first"
Examples and Observations
- "He began to walk barefoot across the meadow, but the sharp dry grass hurt his feet. He sat down to put on his shoes and socks."
(Iris Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers, 1980)
- "That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang… "
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)
- "Muammar Gaddafi Killed, Captured In Sirte"
(Headline in Huffington Post, Oct. 20, 2011)
- "I'm going to kill that magician. I'll dismember him and then I'll sue him."
(Woody Allen, "Oedipus Wrecks" in New York Stories, 1989)
"One of the most common and effective forms of hyperbaton is hysteron proteron (roughly, 'last things first'). Let's take two examples from a master of the technique: 'Powerful you have become. The Dark Side I sense in you' and 'Patience you must have, my young padawan.' For Yoda in Star Wars, hysteron proteron is a linguistic trademark. The key concepts in those three sentences are power, the Dark Side and patience. Their placement underlines them." (Sam Leith, "Much to Learn From Yoda, Public Speakers Still Have." Financial Times UK, June 10, 2015)
Hysteron Proteron in Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2003)
"So attuned is Eric Packer to the future that he repeatedly literalizes the rhetorical trope known as hysteron proteron; that is, as he scans the several digital monitors mounted in his limousine, he experiences an effect before its cause. Among Packer's premonitions is observing himself onscreen recoiling in shock from the Nasdaq bombing before the actual blast occurs." (Joseph M. Conte, "Writing Amid the Ruins: 9/11 and Cosmopolis." The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo, ed. by John N. Duvall. Cambridge University Press, 2008)
Puttenham on Hysteron Proteron (16th century)
"Ye have another manner of disordered speech, when ye misplace your words or clauses, and set that before which should be behind. We call it in English proverb, the cart before the horse, the Greeks call it Histeron proteron, we name it the Preposterous, and if be not too much used is tolerable enough, and many times scarce perceivable, unless the sense be thereby made very absurd." (George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, 1589)
Hysteron Proteron in Rhetoric and in Logic
"Hysteron proteron was thus a term from the discourse of rhetoric for a reversion that reversed the order of 'things' themselves, including in both temporal and logical sequence. In this sense, it appeared across a broad range of early-modern writing, as both a blemish and an exploited license of order and style…
"In the field of formal logic, hysteron proteron simultaneously denoted a 'preposterous' inversion, in this case 'the logical fallacy of assuming as true and using as a premise a proposition that is yet to be proved,' or the proving of a proposition by reference to another one that presupposes it."
(Patricia Parker, "Hysteron Proteron: Or the Presposterous," in Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. by Sylvia Adamson, et al., Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Pronunciation: HIST-eh-ron PROT-eh-ron