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?

  • 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
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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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    @JohnLawler I thought you'd done really well there, until I tried to read it backwards. Disappointed. :( – Frank Jul 8 '14 at 17:17
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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

Is it crazy how saying sentences backwards creates backwards sentences saying how crazy it is?

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    Again, this is kind of a word-wise palindrome. It's cool, but it works because the words are exactly the same backwards and forwards. Something that is asymmetric is slightly more interesting! – icurays1 Jan 28 '16 at 4:21
  • @icurays1 But you asked for a word wise palindrome, didn't you? Or rather a word-wise palindrome must be semantically palindromic. But the what could a non-word-wise palindromic sentence that is semantically palindromic possibly be? "Cats hate felines"? Even if obviously uninteresting, does that at least fit all your criteria? – Mitch Jul 30 '17 at 19:31
  • @Mitch correct, I was looking to find something that was semantically palindromic but not necessarily word-wise palindromic. Your example works because the words "cats" and "felines" are synonyms. It's possible that this is the only possibility - unless perhaps there were two distinct words A and B, both true homonyms, such that A and B share alternate definitions. For example, "Cross to bear" reversed is "Bear to cross"; I've use different meanings of "cross" and "bear" here, but they're not quite semantically equivalent. – icurays1 Jul 30 '17 at 20:46

Am I as bored as you are? Are you as bored as I am?

The words, intact, are maintained in both directions. The meaning is the same but the words are different:

  • Super clever. I like this one. It does have a sort of symmetry of the form ABBA though, which is why it works, but the fact that it's broken into two distinctly different statements is neat. – icurays1 Jun 23 '15 at 17:08

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

  • This is closer to what I'm thinking of - two distinct words A and B such that AB has the same semantic meaning as BA (ignoring punctuation). Nice! – icurays1 Jan 28 '16 at 4:22

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.

  • 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 '15 at 17:17



A is A.

Wasted days are days wasted.


"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 '15 at 16:11
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I really like your examples because they show that one can permute (rearrange) the words in a sentence and maintain the same meaning. Mathematically neat! – icurays1 Jan 28 '16 at 4:19

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

I have just attended a seminar entitled "speech-accompanying gestures". "Gestures accompanying speech" would have the same meaning, I think. Not a sentence, though.

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