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Being a mathematician with mathematician friends, my friends and I occasionally like to joke about the peculiarities of the English language. This one came up recently:

Obviously, most English sentences and phrases cannot be read backwards and forwards and maintain the same meaning. For instance, "watch this" and "this watch" have clearly different meanings. In mathematics, we call this non-commutativity, and it is deeply interesting. So the question is, can anyone think of a phrase or sentence which has the same semantic meaning when the words are read from right to left?

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Do you want a sentence that you are likely to find, or are redundancies in the sentence okay? Because some of my engineer friends write sentences that are grammatically correct and can be read this way, but only because the sentences are redundant. –  PixPrefect Jul 8 '14 at 16:14
    
I would say give me what you've got, but bonus points for a phase that "makes sense", or is more likely to be used in real life. –  icurays1 Jul 8 '14 at 16:17
    
Have you looked at the works of Douglas Hofstadter or Martin Gardner? You will probably find something of interest there. –  Chenmunka Jul 8 '14 at 16:28
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You generally won't find such sentences in English because word order is significant in determining argument structure. Sentences are far more complicated than functions or even relations, and in general commutativity is not possible, nor desirable. And it's not really semantic, even if you find one that plays backwards; it's just a random occurrence, governed probly by pragmatics, not semantics. –  John Lawler Jul 8 '14 at 16:57
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I've given up, for now at least. But I got far enough to think that there's going to be a solution that's a bit less basic than most of the suggestions so far. Here's as far as I got, not the same meaning both ways but meaningful both ways, perhaps it could be worked on... "This question to us demands wisdom". –  Rupe Jul 8 '14 at 17:54

5 Answers 5

Watch this watch

Unless I've misunderstood the question, of course.

EDIT: And in case using the same first and last word is cheating, how about

Path a route (eg. through a maze)

The reverse form still makes sense, just about, I think.

Essentially for an A-B-C structure you'd need pairs of words that are both nouns and verbs, and have the same meaning in both senses. It's an interesting thing to think about.

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This works, but it's kind of cheating imo because it's of the form A-B-A. Something of the form A-B-C such that C-B-A means the same thing would be neat. –  icurays1 Jul 8 '14 at 16:45
    
That's brilliant. I discounted anything with an implied you because I got caught up in structure. –  PixPrefect Jul 8 '14 at 16:46
    
Watch a chow is palindromic phonetically: /wačəčaw/. English spelling has many arbitrary and unsystematic aspects that make it unsuitable for palindromes. But, since spoken language is the real language, that's the place to look for real patterns. –  John Lawler Jul 8 '14 at 16:52
    
@icurays1 I don't know if it really counts as A-B-A. Isn't it more (A)-B-C-D, since (you) is the subject, and "watch" serves different functions as B & D? –  PixPrefect Jul 8 '14 at 17:04

One of the sentences I, an eleven year old, found that stays the same backwards is:

mr owl ate my metal worm

... and backwards it is still:

  • mr owl ate my metal worm.
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Hello and welcome to the ELU :-). That's a great palindrome! Unfortunately, I don't think that's what the OP is asking about (they want a sentence in which word order can be rearranged backwards while keeping the words intact, not one which you can spell backwards to get the same meaning). But the question is tagged as 'palindrome' so you are kind of right. Anyway I like the sentence :-). –  Lucky May 13 at 17:17

My first thought was "Listen, you!" It works both ways. It's short and simple (like me.)

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"Right are you." "You are right." (Many words can be substituted for "right," e.g., "married;" & other pronouns for "you," e.g., "they are happy" / "happy are they.")

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Basically, any copular clause where both the subject and the predicative complement over the subject are of a type that can appear as both subject and predicative complement over the subject qualifies, as long as both refer to the same thing. Less awkward-sounding examples would be “John is my brother / My brother is John” or “Synonyms are words that have the same meaning / Words that have the same meaning are synonyms”. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet May 11 at 16:11

Now that I've played around with this, the only way it can work is if the subject and the direct object are the same; otherwise, it will reverse the actions.

I drove myself.

Myself drove I.

While it sounds weird, it does mean the same thing, unlike this case, where the DO is different.

I drove Jerry.

Jerry drove I.

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They're ungrammatical; does that count? –  John Lawler Jul 8 '14 at 16:53
    
@John I guess it depends on context. I've heard "Myself drove I" used in poetry, but poetry doesn't really functions by "English" rules. –  PixPrefect Jul 8 '14 at 17:01
    
I think it's not really a meme that translates into English that well. –  John Lawler Jul 8 '14 at 17:02
    
Well, English relies more on order than case, so I can agree with that. It's still fun to think about though. :) –  PixPrefect Jul 8 '14 at 17:05

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