Paired Phrases

To be most effective, paired phrases must be parallel—equal in grammatical structure and rhythm. Some need an introductory setup line: most do not. But they all have a simple declarative statement that's craftily repeated by reversing the order of the last few words. The result is an aphorism, almost lyrical in its repetition and valuable because it's easy to remember.

Two of our greatest gifts are imagination and humor. Imagination compensates us for what we are not, Humor compensates us for what we are.

Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. —John F. Kennedy

If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.

—National Rifle Association

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Figures don't lie but all liars can figure.

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit. —William Shakespeare

As a humor technique, paired phrases are facile but not necessarily simple. The basic rule, common in most humor, is that the last line is written first, because that's the point you want remembered. Then you try to reinforce the theme by reversing the words so that the first line incorporates the same rhythm.

Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

Pilot over intercom to impatient passengers: "We're having a short delay for engine repairs. Aren't you glad you're down here wishing you were up there, rather than up there wishing you were down here?" —Joan White Book

I've got what it takes to take what you've got. —Jim Boren

Paired phrases are so popular as clichés that they afford many opportunities for take-off humor.

Boss to his new employee: "Relax, Bitler. You have nothing to fear except fear itself. And me, of course!" —Robert Mankoff

They are frequent applause-getters, and writers know that the audience is more stimulated by the turn of phrase than by its logic. Homonyms get laughs even when they don't make much sense.

It is better to have loved a small man than never to have loved a tall. —Mary Jo Crowley

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