Nonreversible Word Pairs

Certain English words, when paired together, are always written in the same order.  Native speakers learn these nonreversible word pairs through custom and usage.  They intuitively understand that certain word pairs sound “wrong” when their order is reversed. However, these word pairs present a problem for non-native English speakers because only a few follow any sort of pattern. Most nonreversible word pairs are entirely arbitrary, meaning that their orders must be memorized.

Word Pairs with a Logical Order

A few nonreversible word pairs do present the words in an order that is logically consistent. For example, signed and sealed makes more sense than “sealed and signed” because you cannot sign a document once it is already sealed inside an envelope. “Cause and effect” is another good example: you can’t have an effect until you first have a cause for that effect.

Pairs of Opposites

Many nonreversible word pairs contain opposites. These include (but are not limited to), black and white, dead or alive, high and low, in and out, and thick and thin. While there is no pattern to word pairs made of opposites, breaking pairs down into categories in this way can make memorizing those pairs much more manageable.

Pairs That Follow No Pattern

Unfortunately, there is no rhyme or reason to the vast majority of nonreversible word pairs. In fact, rhyme or reason is itself one of these pairs. Here is brief list of some of the most useful nonreversible word pairs in the English language:

back and forth by and large first and last
name and address sooner or later flesh and blood
null and void suit and tie ladies and gentlemen
lost and found food and drink pen and/or pencil
supply and demand front and center pros and cons
trial and error right and/or wrong rise and fall
give and take rain or shine up and/or down
in and out read and write wait and see